Ask Damien #4 (April 5, 2013)


A parent who we shall call “Piccino” emails me some questions. I answered all of them.


As the parent of a youth fencer who has seen some success at the SYC level, I really appreciate your site and commentary.  While I don’t necessarily agree with you on every point, I find your POVs well considered, thought-provoking, and well written.

Here’s some questions I’d love to see addressed:

How do you know when it’s time to switch coaches/clubs?

In your “Open Letter to Fencing Parents“, point 3 states “Use the sport to teach your child loyalty” and goes on to include your observation that “…too often, I see parents expecting instant gratification and shifting coaches around in a revolving door, expecting the quick swaps to yield quick results.”

 I agree with this point in principle, but wonder…are there any instances in which you WOULD advise a family to move on? Or at least, give them a pass for switching clubs/coaches?  If so, what are they?

 You disagree with ME?!?! Just kidding. Great question. I think there’s a couple of moments where it’s time for a fencer to move on from his/her coach.  For me, once I aged out of Juniors, I realized after a few Division I’s that the skillset I had was not translating well to elite competition, and I had to find another answer. I relied heavily on blade work, too much on my fleche attack, and had unsatisfactory footwork. With my shortcomings, I could not compete effectively at the level I desired. I had worked with my previous two coaches for ten years when I made my switch. This was not a “breakup,” however, because those two coaches I speak of are still like family, and they understood the move was best for my fencing. I just returned from a three week trip to Florida and took a lot of lessons from my old coach. I needed work on my short targets, and he happens to teach those very well. In short, it’s the moment where you feel you’ve hit your ceiling with your teacher that it is time to move on.

Other cases where you might move on: personality fit. One coach’s style of motivation/teaching might not work for you. This is another instance where you might want to search for a new coach.

What if a club/coach seems to support other fencers more than your own child? The better the coach, the more limited his/her time is. I hate to say it, but sometimes a coach has to focus more on the students who are showing aptitude for the sport more than their peers. The club I belong to is full of Junior Olympic Champions, former national team members, Division I points holders, etc. I recently asked my coach if I could have an additional lesson every week, and he said no due to lack of time. I understood though, because given the talent in our club, I was at the bottom of the pecking order and his time was better spent with the fencers who were better than I. If I want more lessons, I need to prove I’m worth his time.

What if a club does not have a critical mass of youth fencers in your child’s preferred weapon type? Then showing up at that club is time wasted. Most clubs will have one, no more than two weapons they focus on (with the exception of the NY clubs). Bouting time is equally important to lesson time, footwork time. If they’re not able to bout a lot of people who fence their weapon, they’re not getting the needed practice experience.

What if a favorite coach who worked at the club has retired or left? If they’re your favorite coach, follow them! I think my loyalty to DC Fencers Club is more with my coach I have worked with on and off since I was eight years old than it is to the club itself. But I guess he defined the club experience, so they go hand in hand.

What if something said or done by a coach simply rubs you the wrong way? It depends on the circumstances. Is the coach doling out emotional abuse? Or is the coach giving tough love? There is a big difference. Mudslinging names at a student, physical abuse with the student (hitting them in the legs with the blade for messing up), these are cases of emotional abuse. Telling a student they’re lazy, they’re not working hard enough, they’re not reaching their potential, etc., this is tough love, and acceptable. Tough love is supposed to rub you the wrong way. If you pat a student on the back for everything they do, it’s teaching the wrong lesson and not encouraging commitment to improving the craft.

What if the club is simply a bad “fit” for your child or family (including for logistical reasons…proximity/schedule/etc.) I drove four and a half hours and slept in my car to work with Mario Jelev down in Boca Raton. He was a good fit as a coach, as a person. Logistically, it sucked. So, depends on how much that relationship with the coach is worth to you. Sleeping in my car and driving a total nine hours was certainly worth it to me. But, I understand as a parent, which I am not (thank God) it might be more difficult.

What if a “star” coach approaches you at a tournament and expresses an interest in working with your child? When I was growing up in Florida, I would go to every tournament and get my butt kicked by Alek Gromov and his Florida Musketeers Club (he once hit me with a toe touch so hard it put a hole in my shoe.). He approached me and asked me if I wanted to work with him. Again, going back to the theme of “has the fencer outgrown the skill-set given?” The answer in this case was yes. So, I worked with Gromov because I saw that he was teaching something that was knocking me on my butt. Lo and behold, after six months with him I started getting junior points and such.

If a family is going to switch clubs/coaches, what is a good time to do so?  No time like the present? At least a month before a big tournament?  After Summer Nationals? For the sake of where we’re at right now in the season, I’d say wait til after Summer Nationals. When it’s time to leave your current coach, maintain a friendly relationship. They have served your child well (in theory) and deserve nothing but your continued admiration and respect for the time and energy they have put into your child.

If you’ve made your mind up to leave a club, what’s the best way to do it?  To request a meeting with the coach/owner/club manager? To send an email/write a letter? To just slink away quietly, stop showing up, paying dues? Well, you don’t break up with a girlfriend via email, you don’t give them the silent treatment to end things, and you sure as heck don’t do it via text! Same deal with a coach. This is a conversation that can really hurt, but you owe them the respect to sit down and have the conversation face to face. It really is like a breakup in a lot of ways. Some breakups can go well and become friendships; others can result in the two parties never speaking again. I wish you the former.

How much should one disclose about your reasons for leaving?  On the one hand, if the issues are bothering you affect other students, it might be wise to share them.  On the other, if your issues are more “I just don’t like the way you treat my child/family.” Then perhaps it’s best to leave well enough alone. I think it’s perfectly legitimate to say “I don’t like how you treat my kid” if that is the case. They might learn from that and change behavior in the future, they might not. Us coaches are stubborn people, so it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.

When the inevitable questions come from other parents about the reasons for your departure, how much should you share?  I would think a simple “We just decided that Club X would be better for our family.” But you know who people are…inquiring minds want to know! Don’t talk smack!!! Just move on and move out. Unless you think the coach is up to something criminal, then let the other families decide for themselves.

2 thoughts on “Ask Damien #4 (April 5, 2013)

  1. Love your articles… Very informative. Love the pic of you reading the book upside down.

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