How can we support our teen athletes without (s)mothering them?

I may have mentioned it once, or a thousand times, that I am the parent of an incredible fencer. Unlike her equally talented but less driven sibling, my girl has never been satisfied with less than. Despite a number of hurdles, she’s working harder than ever to bounce back from 6+ months of mono as she prepares for this year’s summer nationals (July 3-12th) in Philadelphia.

I never imagined I’d be a sports mom. We were dabblers in this household, as ready to try ice skating as we were to try theatre or tennis or robotics. When my older kid fell in love with fencing in 2008, I delayed as long as I could but his fondness for the sport was evident. By the time he became a regular in early 2010, his teensy sister was watching from the sidelines, eager for her own shot.

My son maintained his love for the sport through middle school and high school but sadly hung up his saber as senior year began. My daughter is another story. Required to wait until she was taller than the weapon, she started fencing just before her 6th birthday and hasn’t looked back. She’s been adamant that she wants to fence in college.

Steeped in fencing culture for the last eleven years, we’ve seen a lot. From families who fly cross-country in search of ratings, to those talented souls who glide effortlessly down the piste, there are thousands of fencers working hard every day. I’ve sworn that I would do the paying and the driving (all the driving) but that I’d never pressure my kid, on or off the strip.

It sounds easy, right, but I can tell you that at every tournament of nearly every size, I’ve watched an irate parent sound off in frustration.

I’ve done a bit of digging to find ways to support my kid without micromanaging her. Here are some tips from a few pros:

Encourage Balance–whether I suggest my daughter take an afterschool drumming class, or find time for her to volunteer, or just have fun, it’s important to help prioritize balance in her life. Sometimes, the best thing I can do after 30+ hours of practice each week is open a puzzle or invite her to sit down for an episode (or three) of Superstore.

Change the mindset–it’s tempting to minimize performance anxiety, but in the end, my gal is alone on the strip without support from me. Instead of minimizing, I help her focus on mini goals so she feels more in charge of her situation. Possibly the best thing I’ve learned to do is ask about three things she did well in every practice or bout (even the ones she gets clobbered in). Although there was a lot of prompting on my part a few years ago, my daughter does a good job of identifying what she’s pleased with, which in turn allows her to feel that she has an arsenal of skills at the ready. My mantra at big events? “My job is to motivate, not alleviate.

Relaxation–it looks different for every athlete but ultimately, working on steady breaths, and cultivating a killer pre- match playlist have done much to put my athlete in a good headspace. There’s always more to do so I’m happy to have a kid who recognizes what she needs, usually before I do.

Don’t Make it Worse—nothing like trying to get your heartbroken kid to tell you why that bout was 0-5. During the moment of crisis, it’s hard to remember that this is her life, not mine. She may be ready to explode after a beat down, but the last thing she needs to hear is how many days I’ve taken away from work, how expensive this tournament was, or how the opponent didn’t look that hard. My job is to be ready. If things go south, I tend to hang in without saying a word–I know she’ll talk when she’s able. If she wants to muse about how tough it was, she’ll be in better shape after a snack and a face wash. 9 hour car rides leave plenty of time to rehash the day, and make plans for a better tomorrow.

Recognize Injury–although serious injury is rare on the strip, things happen. If my kid complains at all, I know it’s worse than it appears. I listen to her physical complaints and I jump into action if my kid, one of the luckiest in the world, manages to receive a concussion in her first adult tournament.

Don’t make the sport her ID–Will my kid fence in college? Possibly, but for today she is a (brilliant) rising sophomore who fences. We can make plans, set mini goals, increase her practice time, and enter more tournaments, but ultimately her fencing is a small part of the awesome human I am lucky to raise. She, like her brother, may opt to end her fencing career prematurely, but I don’t think so. In the meantime, I practice (and hey, let’s face it, I need a lot of practice) to make sure that I remain firmly in my place as a fencing mom. I can love the sport, I can love the idea that Astrid might play in college, but ultimately, she’s in charge and always has been.

En garde!



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