Should a 10 year old compete in a cadet fencing event?

 A world of difference between Y10 and Cadet fencers

A world of difference between Y10 and Cadet fencers

USA Fencing rules allow youth fencers with Y14 national points to compete in cadet events at both the regional and national level. This opens the door to fencers as young as 9 or 10 to compete in cadet events. From a developmental perspective, even if a Y10 fencer is qualified to compete in cadet events, should they?

Experienced fencing coaches recommend that youth fencers compete within their own age group and one level up as the most effective way for young fencers to develop their competition skills. This makes a lot of sense for several reasons:

  1. foremost, a young fencer should compete with his/her peers, and work for success in that age group. Success here will build a fencer’s confidence.

  2. competing in fencing events one age group up exposes the fencer to a slightly higher level of fencing, and provides the requisite challenge for the fencer to step up his/her skills

  3. while the fencer is asked to stretch a little competing one age group up, the fencer is not being pushed so hard that it undermines confidence instead

  4. learning to win, and learning to close out a bout are skills best developed in competitions within the fencers own age group, and one level up. Only the very exceptional youth fencer wins events 2 age groups up.

When a fencer is not ready with skills and physical development, parents set their child up to fail by pushing them into competitions 2 or 3 age group levels up from where they are currently. While an adult could thrive with difficult stretch targets, youth fencers will have a tough time developing confidence from repeated failure. It takes a very emotionally mature 10 year old to brush off repeated losses in cadet events, and build confidence on the back of these losses.

In the sport of fencing, the game is 95% mental as soon as the fencer steps onto the competition strip. Making sure that the fencer’s mental game is developed correctly is just as important as developing his/her fencing skills. Prematurely pushing a child to fence several levels above his/her age group and skills is generally counter-productive.

US Fencing qualification rules are designed to facilitate competition for a fencer in events within their own age group and one level up. For fencers trying to qualify for events 2 age group levels or more above where they are currently, US Fencing requires that the fencer earns national points in the age group immediately below where the fencer is trying to compete. For example, if a Y12 fencer wants to compete in a cadet event, that Y12 fencer must 1st earn national points in the Y14 age group. This rule is supposed to ensure that the fencer has some minimum level of skill to compete in a cadet event.

The SYC (Super Youth Circuit) enables many youth fencers to earn national points in events that are one or two levels above the fencer’s current age group. It is possible for a 10 year old, for example, to earn Y14 national points at an SYC by finishing at the tail end of the 40% of the field that earns national points. like finishing 32nd in an 80 person Y14 field, or finishing 64th in a 160 person Y14 field at an SYC.

According to US Fencing qualifying rules, that 10 year old may now compete in both regional and national cadet events. Is that 10 year old ready to compete in a cadet event? Common sense will tell you that the answer is a resounding NO!

While there are very rare exceptions, most promising 10 year olds are not ready for cadet level competition. The reasons are pretty obvious:

  1. there is an enormous gap in physical development, balance, co-ordination, speed and strength between a 10 year old and a 15 or 16 year old cadet fencer, or even a Y14 fencer competing one level up. The 10 year old fencer will almost certainly be on the losing end of this inequality, since it isn’t a fair fight to start with.

  2. there is a substantial skill gap between a 10 year old and a 15 or 16 year old cadet fencer. The 10 year old has trained for 2 to 3 years at a maximum, while the 15 or 16 year old has been training as a fencer for 5 to 8 years. Again, the 10 year old will be on the losing end of this inequality.

  3. the average cadet fencer has substantially more competition experience, and can usually defeat a 10 year old easily

Yet, it is becoming frequent for parents, especially in men’s foil, to inappropriately push their youth fencers into competitions that require skills and physical development far beyond those possessed by their child. Parental ambition appears to have trumped common sense in these situations.

At a recent NAC, a Y10 fencer was accidentally hit on the arm during a pool bout in a men’s cadet event. The parents called for the medic, and the child took 5 to 6 minutes to recover despite there being no visible injury. 3 bouts later, the child was still complaining of pain, and was in and out of tears. Cadet fencers are stronger and faster, and their hits can sometimes be quite hard. Cadet fencers recover pretty rapidly from accidental hits, but for a 10 year old child, unaccustomed to being hit hard, the pain and shock last much longer.

Did this child’s parents have to sign him up for a cadet event at a NAC? Was there an advantage to have this 10 year old child compete in a cadet event? Definitely not! This child won one pool bout (5-4) and was eliminated from the competition. I wonder if the parents thought this experience worthwhile.

For a teenage cadet fencer, especially in foil, the challenge with fencing a Y10 fencer lies in the smallness of the target, and not in the Y10 fencers skill. The challenge is magnified by the common fencing position amongst Y10 foil fencers to bend forward almost in a crouch, thereby obscuring much of the front target area. In addition, Y10 and Y12 boys wear chest protectors when fencing foil events. Every cadet knows that this is a defensive advantage in favor of the younger fencer. Even with the introduction of the padded chest protector, it is very difficult to succeed in a direct attack on the area covered by the chest protector. When the opportunity presents itself, cadet fencers, especially in men’s foil, will execute flicks to the back on a Y10 fencer since the Y10s fencing position leaves this target area wide open.

In many situations, parents of Y10 fencers expect the older fencer to go easy on their child, even at NACs. Parents become irate when the cadet fencer scores points using flicks on their child. Parents have been known to make requests in advance to older fencers that they refrain from flicking their child, This is absurd as a flick is a legitimate action, and the parent is attempting an unsporting interference in a fencing bout.

Parents of young fencers have engaged in aggressive verbal abuse of older fencers because they felt the older fencer frightened their child during the bout by yelling after scoring a point. Not only is this behavior on the part of the parent a potential “black card” event under US Fencing Rules, the parent engaging in the behavior is demonstrating quite clearly that his Y10 fencer is not ready for the “big boys”.

Parents have also grumbled after the fact that certain older fencers had unnecessarily “crushed” their child in a bout, and didn’t even concede a single point to their child. This is again absurd for the parent to have an expectation that their child should be given special favors in a cadet event.

Parent expectation of special treatment for their Y10 fencer in cadet events is unreasonable and unsportsmanlike. Attempts to interfere with a fencer’s legitimate actions in a bout is even worse. These parental behaviors are clear attempts to violate the integrity of the competition in favor of their child.

The actions from these parents are a pretty clear demonstration that they are fully aware that their child is not ready for a cadet event, but go ahead and place their child in a tough spot anyway.

Parents with teenage fencers understand that developing a fencer is a step by step process, requiring patience and determination. Every fencer will get their chance at success within their age group at the right time. The playing field levels out for a fencer usually in the 2nd year of Y14 or the 1st year of cadet. Before that, disparities in growth make for an uneven playing field.

One of our national foil coaches famously said that improvement comes from fencing with those a little bit better and a little bit worse. A fencer derives no benefit from fencing against someone significantly better. The weaker fencer ends up fighting for his/her life with no ability to engage a strategy or learn from mistakes during the bout. There is no skill development taking place when the gap between the fencers is too large.

Prematurely pushing your youth fencer to compete in events 2 to 3 levels above their age group will not speed up your child’s path to either the Olympics or to Harvard. However, you could potentially damage your child’s confidence along the way causing irreparable damage to his/her ability to excel in fencing.

One of the best examples of competing within your own age group, and not prematurely jumping the gun comes from golf. The mental game in golf is as important as the mental game in fencing.

As we all know, Tiger Woods dominated men’s golf globally for many years. Growing up in Southern California, he competed in age group events in his home region, and dominated within his age group. He was a rising golf star throughout his teen years, but he did not attempt a PGA event till he turned 17. What happened for Tiger Woods after that is well known and well documented. He was untouchable for years, and he developed an enormous psychological advantage over his opponents, who viewed him as unbeatable.

Contrast Michelle Wie who was a rising teenage star golfer from Hawaii. She had as much potential if not more than Tiger Woods at the same age. At age 14, she attempted a stunt and competed in the men’s PGA tour event. That move generated a huge amount of media hype because it was such a novelty for a woman to compete on the men’s tour. Unfortunately for Michelle Wie, her skills did not match up to the hype in the men’s competition. While Michelle Wie went on to become a strong golfer, she never attained Tiger Wood’s legendary status despite all the early promise of greatness.

These stories should be cautionary to ambitious parents prematurely pushing their child to compete in fencing events above their skill level.