Sunday, March 20, 2022

Not Enough Tournaments

           People's reasons for going to tournaments or not going to tournaments will vary. I think for youth athletes, even some adult athletes, and parents, a lot of the factors at play might not be immediately evident. I want to talk a little briefly about why you should be going to tournaments as part of your training, and how holding off on going can just mean missed opportunity.

          There are four fencers on my mind at the moment as examples...and several others who I hope get the message in this post.

          The first example is my best friend. He earned his A in epee. He was about 30. He was very excited about it because he won a Regional Circuit event, hosted by the college club where we both started fencing. It was held in the gym where we hosted collegiate championship events while we were in school. He beat a handful of fencers he'd been aware of throughout his time fencing, and he had me, his best friend, there strip coaching him. He looks at this as one of the most meaningful events of his fencing career.

          In the four years following that, he only fenced 8 events. He made it to the finals in three of them and the semi-finals in two. He's always been a strong fencer with good results, but he never competed much. In the 14 years where he competed he averaged 2.9 tournaments per year. He could have very easily re-earned his A if he competed more regularly. More tournaments would have given him more opportunities for success. More experience competing in tournaments would have helped him learn to adapt to the tournament setting. He was a very strong fencer. Making adaptations to finish a close or important bout was not in his skill set, and he readily admitted this. When he switched coaches to work with me, this eventually became a tactical focus, but by that time life and having kids meant no more time to compete. In part, because of shifting demands on his time, he lost the opportunity to use the tactical skills he was developing to reach the goal of re-earning the A, but in part, that kind of adaptation and adjustment, is something we hone in the tournament setting. We need tournaments because we need the pressure, having the win at stake, and the variety of different fencers who are also developing separately from us in order to train winning in those conditions.

          My second example is a current student. He is also an A rated epeeist. He puts in the time to train multiple nights a week. His gym wouldn't let him weight train until he was sixteen, but he's adding that to his work out schedule this summer. He runs for his school to get his cardio in. He was holding his own against A rated fencers in practice while he was an E, because COVID took away all the tournaments his first season of senior, and his first season of serious training, he was delayed in increasing his rating. When tournaments resurfaced he went to as many as he could. Went to NACs and came close to picking up points. Went to a regional event with a goal of getting enough regional points to fence the various Summer Nationals Events he wanted to fence. He got the points he needed across four events in two days. He took 3rd place in his first event (Y14), upping his E to a D, then that afternoon took 3rd place in his second event (Div1A) upping his E to an A.

          He has again decided on some goals, and so he is going out to every tournament he can to meet those goals. He's finding success. After this past weekend he should be on the top 10 if not top 8 for Junior and Cadet for our regional points list. He's acquiring the points he needs for the events he wants to fence which will help situate him for two of his long term goals. He's doing the work in club, he's doing the work athletically, and he's traveling to as many competitions as he can because he knows he needs those competitions to get access to the events he wants access to. He's also traveling to competitions where he can't get points because he knows he needs to practice events at that level, and practice competing in that context against the types of fencers he will be up against at important events. We have a stellar line up of epeeists in our club, but he understands the value of fencing a diverse group of people, and also the people who will be fencing the competitions he is competing in. Regardless of where you fence, you can only get that by doing tournaments regularly.

          My third example is a former youth student who is now one of my assistant coaches. He is a very good, very promising fencer. Some of his performances get in the way of him seeing that consistently. He wasn't very serious about fencing as a youth athlete, and got serious the year he turned 18. He started training a lot, but still wasn't competing much. Within about a year and a half of getting serious he upped his E to a D, then a C, and finally to a B. By that point he had only ever fenced two regional events and was about to go to his first Junior NAC, after 5 years of fencing. He was a B, he was going to age out of Junior in a month, and would be stuck only being able to fence Div1 Senior Events with only ever having had 3 circuit events under his belt.

          His first five years of fencing he averaged 4 tournaments per year. He developed the skill, through putting in long hours of lessons, to earn his B. Not having fenced a variety of tournaments, he doesn't have the experience to adapt to a variety of fencers. The type of decision making he needs to make in a competition setting is less evident. Adapting to different styles of refereeing is less familiar. Once he got serious about competing (half the tournaments in that first five years were fenced in a single year), it took a year for him to figure out how to properly prepare himself in terms of eating and resting in order to make it through an event successfully.

          For him, learning the skills that going to competitions helps teach was missing and held him back some. Coaches can tell you these things, we can set up scenarios in lessons, in drills and in scrimmages that mimic some of this. To really internalize a lot of these elements you need competitions. In his case, being a B means he can't fence most local competitions. The National Office has decided that our region only needs 3 regional senior competitions next year, so he won't have those to fence, and this season barely had any he could do. There are many more regional Junior, Cadet and Youth events, but he is too old for those. So his options for increasing his experience in competition are severely limited because he waited. It's not impossible for him at this point, but it will be a harder more grueling process. If you start young, you can get those experiences in Y14, maybe even in Y12, and keep honing your capabilities through Cadet and Junior. You'll be in competitions with a peer group who are physically developing just like you are, and whose motor control and skills are developing along with yours. If you miss those age brackets and start as an adult, you can develop your skills and experience alongside each other in Div III and Div II with other developing lower rated fencers. In Div I you can only fence C, B and A fencers. Most of them will be developed, experienced, senior fencers, or Cadet and Junior fencers who are exceptional and can hold their own in senior. It's a much more difficult, and therefore more frustrating context in which to try and gain experience, in addition to simply being less available.

          Add to that being a 22 year old, there is less of a support structure to afford travel and competition fees. Being limited to higher end competitions means he's limited to more expensive competitions. Youth, Cadet, and Junior fencers have parents invested in helping them achieve goals who will pay for travel, maybe turn competition trips into family vacations. They will pay tournament entry fees. In my experience working with college fencers, this support structure often vanishes or severely diminishes for college age athletes. The lack of funds can make developing tournament experience almost necessary. (I was very lucky in that my parents supported my fencing through, and a little after college, monetarily. I wish more college athletes had this support.)

          This fencer always tells our youth athletes not to make his mistake. He encourages them to get out to as many competitions as possible. Gain the experience, have fun doing it. Enjoy being able to do it in more comfortable skill and age categories with support from your parents and without the stress of having to drive yourself on long trips early in the morning before competing (this will usually also wreck performance). The youth athletes don't really internalize the warning. Hopefully seeing it laid out will help parents understand and maybe help youth athletes grasp it.

          My last example is another really promising fencer. He was recently frustrated at missing a rating increase by two touches. Experienced competitors know that sometimes, that's just how it is. Sometimes the other person figures something out or is just a hair stronger or you're having an off day or they're having a great day. Experienced competitors also know that isn't always a matter of it just being how it is. Sometimes we need to be able to knuckle down, make an adjustment, and make a choice to score in a way we know we can absolutely make happen. It takes patience and commitment to controlling the scenario and building the moment we need to make our action happen. How do you do that against an unknown competitor? You read what they've been doing, and adapt and make choices and adjustments. You can't do that though when you're primarily used to fencing your teammates.

          This fencer won his first Y12 competition, fenced one more Y12, and then nothing else until a year later when he won his first senior competition and earned his E. He has averaged 6 events per year over his 3 years of competing. This is a little better than some of our other examples, but still about half of what I'd recommend as a minimum. With the exception of two circuit events he's never fenced anything above a C1 event. This means he generally hasn't fenced anything which would give a lot of ratings, or where he had to fence very strong fencers. 27% of his events he's finished first place, which seems pretty exceptional. He's earned his E four times in 3 years despite COVID taking away one of those years. I have no doubt that if a couple things were tweaked for him, and if he started competing regularly, then a C would be on the table as a short term goal.

          More competition would make a big difference in reaching this goal though. For one, more competitions would mean more opportunities for ratings increases. The more times you try, the more chances you have to succeed. Fencing, not necessarily much bigger, but at least stronger competitions would also mean more ratings available to earn, and increased chances. It would also mean more opportunity to encounter stronger fencers and develop from that competitive experience. As we mentioned with other fencers it would help in building the type of thinking needed to adapt and adjust in competition.

          For a younger fencer competition is also important for building a competitive mindset, both in terms of how to think while competing -- how to understand your movement, how to assess opponents, how to balance your emotions, and how to make decisions; but also how to think after competitions -- how to analyze what you did and what your opponents did, how to walk away from a loss, how to appreciate a win. Younger fencers also benefit by getting a more realistic picture of their goals, and what goals are possible by attending competitions. They learn what work they need to do to be as successful as the people who are succeeding. We often highlight in practice how people who go to their first big competitions see successful people doing the things we say to do, and the fencers are often a little amazed after their first high level competition. That amazement comes with a recognition that what those people are doing is in their grasp because it's the result of the same kind of training they are given, and the same advice they are given about athletic and physical development.

          To summarize:

                   - Competition exposes us to fencing a variety of unfamiliar fencers


                   - Competition exposes us to competing in a competitive scenario


                   - Competition teaches us to adjust to referees and other elements of the                           fencing environment


                   - Competition gives us opportunities to meet goals

                   - Competition helps shape our awareness of goals and of fencing


                   - Competition provides developmental skills for how we think about                              challenges, successes, and failures which can apply to all areas of life

                   - Competition provides experience which is necessary for success

                   - Competition experience is harder to get if you wait 'til you're older or                           more highly rated


                   - Opportunities decrease the longer you wait, costs and stress factors go up


                   - Competition success provides access to additional opportunities at higher           levels


                   - Colleges use higher level competitions to evaluate who to scout


                   - A purely recreational fencer should do a few competitions a year, 4 to 8


                   - A moderately competitive/locally competitive fencer should do about 12                      per year, or one per month


                   - A serious competitor will depend on age categories and goals, but might                       have two to three in a month, or sometimes more than one event in a                              weekend

                   - Even for serious competitors breaks are necessary

Thanks for reading!

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