Stephen Ewart and Stafford at the SYC in Phoenix, 2013.
Making the Team
This isn’t about your child “making the team,” but about the team you build to support your child.
Team (Insert Your Fencer’s Name Here)
One of my goals as a parent has been to give my son all of the opportunities I can, open as many doors as possible. It is up to him to actually go through them. My husband and I are, of course, the founding members of Team Stafford.
I knew absolutely nothing about fencing when I was first looking for a fencing class. But I read Yelp reviews and went on the Swords website; it seemed like it would be a good fit. It was sort of nearby – everything is sort of nearby and sort of far away in Los Angeles, depends on how you look at it – our Southern California version of the glass half empty or half full. More important though, the coach had a good track record. He had students who had fenced internationally and had students fencing in Ivy League schools. So, I reasoned, if Stafford decided he did actually want to compete, something that was not really even a realistic possibility for my painfully shy son, he would not have to switch to a different coach or studio. It was sort of the same philosophy I used when I chose his school. I wanted a school that was k–12, so that we wouldn’t have that mad intense school search again in sixth or 9th grade. If he wanted to switch, fine, but we wouldn’t have to. And I found a school where students got into Ivy League schools, liberal arts schools, and top art schools. So, I figured they must be doing something right. Again, opening doors. Swords looked like a nice door to open.
I have met a lot of coaches now, after seven years in the fencing world. Most are great. A few, for various reasons, would be a very poor match for my son. Tigran Shaginian, Swords head coach, and Sorah Shin, who was at that time with Swords Fencing Studio, were the third and fourth members of Team Stafford as I grew to think of it. (Stafford wasn’t actually even a member of the team yet. Or maybe a junior member. He had no vote at this this point). As founding members of Team Stafford, our most important task was to create a strong support team. Again, at this time, it never occurred to me that Stafford would become a serious competitive fencer. So, my goal, with this team, was finding a place where he could grow to become more confident and assertive.
I respect Tigran tremendously as a coach. He is great with Stafford (and Stafford is getting to be great with him). He treats him with a bit of tough love, a bit of frustration, a lot of humor, but always underneath it a support of Stafford as a boy and now young man. Stafford can frustrate him, especially when he says, “I know, I know,” and Tigran says, “You don’t know, or you would have done it…” but he will always come back to his point, demonstrate, and explain until he sees a glimmer of understanding. I try very hard to stay out of the conversations, especially after a tough loss on the strip at a NAC. Tigran knows what he is doing. Occasionally I will suggest to Tigran that Stafford might be more receptive after he’s had a bit of time to digest the loss. Mostly I try to keep out of it. I trust Tigran implicitly as a coach. I try to let him do his job.
On Stafford’s 11th birthday, all he wanted to do was take a birthday cake to fencing class. He didn’t even want presents. He wanted me to make a carrot cake (I make a great carrot cake, recipe courtesy of my husband’s mother) and it was very important that we show up in between the advanced class and the beginning class because he mostly wanted the older boys to have a piece of his birthday cake. One boy, who fenced internationally and then continued on later to fence at Columbia, took a piece of cake, smiled at Stafford and said, “Thanks. Happy birthday, Staff!” Staff talked all the way home about how cool it was that this boy actually knew his name.
An important element of Swords Studio is the emphasis placed on mentoring. Older boys help run the younger kids’ class, sometimes give lessons to beginners, and some return to help run the camps during the summer. My son has flourished under the attention of these older boys. He has looked up to them and they have offer encouragement and guidance that can only be given from those who have already traveled that path. I remind Staff now, as he moves up to being one of the older boys in the studio, and one that the younger kids look up to, that this is an important role he now needs to play in the studio.
Stephen Ewart, one of our top fencers, who has made both the US Cadet and Junior team, has been an important mentor. He is now at Notre Dame, but he always finds us at NACs and checks in with Staff, offering advice and encouragement. Recently at a NAC, Staff was really struggling in his Division 1 pool. He was getting emotional, frustrated and upset, and his fencing was suffering for it. Stephen pulled up a chair strip-side next to Tigran, and sat through the next three bouts, encouraging him, joking with him, offering pointers. He got him out of his head, and, between him and Tigran, Stafford made it out of pools.
At tournaments, Stafford has witnessed the camaraderie between the older fencers who have by now traveled to other countries together, fought each other on the strip too many times to count. And he wants to be a part of that. Now that Stafford is 15, and has been competing for a while, his circle of fencing friends has widened. And they come by and watch him fence and cheer him on and he does the same. These boys will be friends for a long time, they will travel, eat, play, fence, and go to college together. Whether they know it or not, in my book, they are on Team Stafford. Just as he is on theirs.
Stafford’s teachers are also on Team Stafford. Before school even starts, I email them a tournament and basic travel schedule and also his training schedule, which is many hours almost every day of the week. I asked if it’s possible for Stafford to get assignments earlier in the day, or even the weekend before so that he will have time to get everything done and not fall behind during the week. Almost every teacher is happy to help. A couple of weeks before each tournament, I email out our actual travel days. We work together to make sure that Stafford knows what is expected of him while he is gone. I also include them in his struggles and his results. I often bring them back something from the international trips, chocolate from Austria for example. I really appreciate their efforts, and I know it takes extra work for them. We are fortunate that his school is so supportive. A lot of parents might not have thought about keeping teachers in the loop. Ask them to join the team. It can’t hurt. It can only help.
Medical Team Members
Because Stafford has had some injuries (not all fencing related!), we also have medical members on Team Stafford. (article on injuries coming soon!) I cannot say enough about the orthopedic doctors and staff at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. When he broke his wrist, Dr. Nightdale, former fencer who fenced at Princeton and also took part in the fencing Olympic Trials, was the one to catch the tiny break in his wrist, the scaphoid, one that is often overlooked, and if it had not been caught, would have prevented him from being able to successfully do a coupé. When Stafford got a spinal stress fracture, Dr. Skaggs, head orthopedist and spine and youth sports injury specialist, his head assistant Allison Lehman, and Jeremy Wong, physical therapist at Children’s, joined the team. They are now on the list of those we update as to Staff’s results in tournaments. They are rooting for him. We have now added a new physical therapist and trainer who works Stafford out twice a week and is quick to address any possible injuries or muscle issues. Our newest member of the team.
Whether they know it or not, a lot of fellow fencing parents are also members of Team Stafford. I am referring to fellow Swords parents, and also the parents I have been able to meet at other tournaments. The parents at our club are wonderful. We all encourage our children to root for each other whenever someone is fencing, and know how much our children appreciate having friends cheering them on. We try to have team dinners at a NAC, and our fencers enjoy getting together and just having fun. We go to movies together and our kids sometimes meet at the hotel pool. We support all of the successes of Swords fencers. To be sure there are occasionally issues between kids, and even sometimes between parents, but for the most part, we all see the bigger picture and celebrate the victories and help console when there are the inevitable disappointments.
The fencing community in general is an amazingly supportive community. I enjoy going to the tournaments, watching the boys I have seen fence for years now, as they improve and mature. There are many parents I have gotten to know and we all support each other’s children and efforts. We marvel with each other how they have shot up over the past few months, how their voices are changing. We compare notes on everything from helping our students handle school demands to recommendations for local restaurants. In my mind, they are all ancillary members of Team Stafford.
Okay, at a certain point, Stafford gets a say in things. He needs that, and I need that. At a point, part of supporting your fencer is giving him more independence. And a say in some of the things that matter. This goes back to my piece on setting goals. Your fencer, as he gets older, will have a stronger opinion on what he wants to do. Does she want to compete? Try to make team? Fence in college? Does he want to compete internationally? I think that at a certain point, you have to give your child the freedom to make those choices. Listen to her. Also, listen to yourself. And ask yourself periodically – Are you doing this for your fencer? Or for yourself?
Your Role in Supporting the Team
All of these team members have very specific roles in terms of supporting your fencer. The tricky thing as a parent, and Team Leader, is not only to put the team together, but also to support those team members and let them do their jobs. Let your Coach coach. Don’t get in his way, don’t sit strip-side and offer your own advice while your coach is sitting there. That is his job. Don’t talk about keeping distance, or point control. Just keep quiet, keep your body language open and positive regardless of the score, and have a bottle of water ready for the break. (I have to admit I could do better here. But I try.)
If your fencer’s physical therapist recommends exercises to help an injury heal, make sure your fencer does it. That is part of your role supporting the team.
And, yes, I hound Stafford to do his homework when we travel. He is just not one of those who is going to willingly sit at his computer in the hotel room in Milwaukee or Kansas City. It’s not going to happen. So, you have to know your child, and support those team members who have done their part to help, by making sure your fencer is doing what is expected of him.
Revising the Team
As important as it is to create a support team, it is also important to be able to revise it. Sometimes, you think someone is supportive, and it turns out that they are not as supportive as you had thought. We all have our own agendas and goals. Be willing to acknowledge, preferably without any drama or hard feelings towards that person, that sometimes a person is not as supportive as you had thought. It happens.
None of us do anything alone. I believe success or failure is not based solely on the individual, but on the people around him who support him. The people who encourage her and stand by her. It is up to you, as a parent, to put that support team together, be a part of it. And enjoy the ride.
Kathryn Atwood, fencing parent for seven years. I welcome any comments, questions, suggestions for topics, etc.