Why would any sane individual give up his or her free time for the opportunity to be hit by and try to hit another individual with a slightly-longer-than three foot piece of steel? This is asked time and time again.
The answers are simple for me. It’s fun and cathartic. After a frustrating day of work I get to stab someone. Legally. Other people do have the opportunity to do the same to me, true, that just raises the stakes.
Fencing is living a dream to me. Having been raised on a steady diet of King Arthur, Musashi, The Three Musketeers and a plethora of fantasy novels, this was the closest I was going to get to a real swordfight. Growing up in the Philippines I had no larping, no Society for Creative Anachronism, though I did have a lot of dice and a few friends for Dungeons and Dragons. Not quite the same thing.
It’s fair to say my imagination led me to it. Once in, I found that it was a lot harder than it looked. Was D’Artagnan ever so clumsy? This hooked me more than anything. I guess if it was easy then we would all be fencing. Despite my years of Karate I discovered that I had two left feet and none of my body parts were connected, or they were connected when they weren’t supposed to be.
A bigger question perhaps is why would I let my child take up this wonderfully frustrating sport?
Well, my daughter is six. She has been coming to the club with me since she was three and a half. It’s a second home and one that I am grateful she gets to live in. Fun and friends aside, fencing gives us several lessons that as a parent I would like her to learn.
Fencing is a sport that requires immense amounts of physical capability, mental adroitness, and emotional strength; just what I wanted for my little girl. Very much like the Karate I took as a kid. However, I don’t get punched in the face and kicked in the ribs as much (this can be fun too, I took 14 years of this fun.) To get all of this you need discipline.
This is a sport which teaches responsibility and self-reliance. Victory or defeat is determined by the fencer’s actions. Don’t get me wrong, the coach and the club have a lot to do with it as well, but no matter how good the instruction and environment can be, the fencer stands alone on the piste and is responsible for his or her actions. This can be difficult for children to accept but it is, I believe, a lesson of importance. Children often choose to blame something else for their lack of performance. How often is it that we hear “he’s cheating,” or “the rules are stupid” when they encounter difficulty? Having been around a few children I can say I hear it a lot. Any person who stays in the sport of fencing learns that it is achievement is only gained through hard work and perseverance.
The fencing club is a community that promotes the spirit of friendly competition. The children train together, often becoming close friends. It is these same friends who they often come up against in competition. I have seen this spirit many times as they cheer each other on in tournaments knowing that one of them may have to eliminate the other at some point. It is amazing to see one kid lend his equipment to another to keep them from forfeiting a bout due to faulty equipment.
Fencing also teaches children how to deal with failure. It does this in spades. Coming into the sport, all new and shiny, the budding fencer, perhaps the best of his beginner class, will step on the piste to face an older more experienced fencer. What follows is usually a defeat of epic proportions for the novice. This is then followed by defeat after defeat against better fencers sometimes for quite a while. While there are those who are naturally talented and start winning early, for most of us, it is a long climb to the top of the mountain… With large rocks tumbling down the slope… And burning pitch… And blowing snow. Epic mountain climbs are not complete without blowing snow.
In addition to the regular losses, one of the most difficult situations for the child to overcome is a loss due to a bad call by the referee. In a tournament this can mean losing the bout, elimination from the tournament, or the loss of a medal. The hard part is; the referee is always right, even when he is wrong. This can be very disheartening; particularly when it is your friend or colleague who makes that call. The fencers who throw tantrums at this get penalized. If they continue they can get kicked out of the tournament. The child learns to politely ask why the call was made and accept the answer in a rational manner even if it is not what they want to hear. They learn control.
This can be emotionally difficult for the fencer. The best fencers learn not to let this hold them back. They learn to accept that mistakes are made by everyone and then move past them.
Now, I won’t say that everyone learns these lessons. There are a lot of fencers there with poor attitudes. Some of them do get far in the sport. However, no one gets far without the discipline and courage to dedicate themselves, body and soul, into improving.
Excellence in this life is not easy to come by. This is why I want my daughter to fence. I believe that in this sport she can learn the skills necessary to achieve excellence as a person. I also dream of a future conversation:
Teenage boy who will never get my approval – “So would you like to go on a date with me?”
My totally awesome teenage daughter – “So would you like three feet of steel in your gut?”
I can dream can’t I?