Among young fencers, there is no badge of honor more revered than that of a rating in the sport. Ratings, as you may or may not know range anywhere from an “A” rating to a “U” rating, with “A” being the highest, and “U” being unrated. While the rating is a semi-relative gauge of the ability of the fencer who holds one, it is far from the be-all end-all barometer of skill in a fencer, which is important to stress to students.
Young fencers, (and young athletes, for that matter) assess their individual performances based on receiving material rewards such as trophies and ratings. Rather than concluding a lesson or a tournament with the satisfaction that they mastered a particular action, a young fencer is more likely to feel a sense of dejection if they walk away empty-handed.
Ironically, setting a goal to obtain a higher rating can often have the reverse effect and cause a fencer’s progression to stagnate. A student’s loss becomes almost predictable if leading up to an elimination match they declare “Wow Damien, if I win this match, I’ll get my ‘D’ rating!” The focus then strays from fencing “one touch at a time” and turns to a desire for a reward that at the end of the day is nothing more than a piece of paper.
There are a few things a coach can do to mitigate the risks associated with a fencer’s desire for a higher rating:
1. Offer meaningful, positive praise for the mastery of a particular action, or if the coach is seeing general improvement. I heard a coach counseling a student the other day who had finished near last in a tournament. In framing the student’s progression against their previous tournament, the student actually felt satisfied with the baby steps made, and thus, was able to walk away feeling like things were going the right way!
2. During a tournament (particularly big matches) stick by your student’s side …and constantly remind them to stay focused on scoring one touch at a time so they don’t get too jumpy in shooting for a rating.
3. Set goals with them that don’t include ratings. I talked to an up and coming junior fencer in my club the other day. “So what do you want out of this season?” I asked. “I want to get my “A” he said. *FACEPALM!* I explained that he was working with an excellent coach and the goals should be based more on learning what he could learn from this coach. If he worked hard and learned all he could, the “A” would come naturally as a result.
4. Encourage students to not give a damn in tournaments. That’s right. Sometimes the more carefree you are on the strip, the more relaxed you can be. The day I earned my “A” rating I had finished an all-night bender at the University of Florida. I was so mentally crippled that I stopped caring and I started fencing (ironic, right?). Rumor has it that the Hungarian Olympic Gold Medal Saber Team was passing around a flask throughout their title run. Didn’t seem to hurt them at all. Helped, in fact. It’s just a game at the end of the day. Doesn’t need to be taken seriously!
So remember. Ratings are nice to have, but it’s not the most important part of fencing, by any means. Open your ears, work hard, learn all you can from your esteemed coaches, and the rating will come. Focusing too hard on it and caring too much will have the unintended consequence of stalling your progression. Fence hard my friends, always.