Talking to Students About Ratings


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 stayed out all night 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.


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7 thoughts on “Talking to Students About Ratings

  1. I think these principles extend far beyond fencing. Thanks for the reminder to care less about titles, rankings, etc. “Focusing too hard on it and caring too much will have the unintended consequence of stalling your progression.” good stuff

    1. These kids get so caught up in the pissing contest of who’s better than who and they forget to pull their heads out of their asses and fence!

    2. 100% agree! I like the saying that care less on the rating/rank, focus on every single bout. It’s a fun game, most important thing is to enjoy it.

  2. But as the old saw goes, “…if it’s just a game, why are we keeping score?” Sure, the rating itself does not absolutely indicate the strength of a fencer; but if anyone thinks that a young fencer doesn’t understand the difference between having an “A” in their pool, vs a “D,” then we’re not really paying attention.
    It’s a balancing act, and a key part of managing Ratings Disorder Syndrome is having the coach and parent/support structure use an advanced ranking as a good thing to strive for, but not become obsessed about.
    The fencers aren’t dumb. They see the advantage of having a higher rating to get better pools and strike fear into the hearts of their lower ranked opponents. But as Damien says, it really does need to be in a context of “fence well and the ratings will come,” and less of “OMG, if I beat Anna Parry in this bout, I get my (next rating here)!”
    One thing Damien does not touch on is the US Fencing points system, which allows younger fencers to fence up into older brackets. Some kids are intimidated by having to go against much older fencers, some thrive on it. Just as with ratings, the “points” race can be a great motivator, or a destructive obsession that needs to be managed carefully, too.

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