Steve Kemp, BF Pathways Director, reflects on the U23 European Championships held in Budapest, Hungary, in May 2023.
A squad of 21 athletes with an average age of 20 took part across all six weapons in Budapest, supported by a team of eight staff including coaches, a physiotherapist and performance support from The True Athlete Project, as well as the personal coaches in attendance.
We were also lucky to have Jon Willis and Pat Aiyenuro on DT whose counsel and insights were valued and helpful.
The U23 European Championships doesn’t seem to have the same profile as the Cadet, Junior, and Senior major championships. However, it is a very strong competition and a challenge all the athletes stepped up to meet.
The depth and quality of the opposition, the security staff, and the heat and humidity, especially in the second hall, made it a great challenge for the travelling BF athletes and support staff. But the strength of the competition helped give the athletes a sense of perspective of the quality of fencers from other countries – fencers who will be their peers in the Senior space, now and in years to come.
Without ranking points, this competition allows the fencers the opportunity to fence freely and express themselves, and the team events allowed the coaches to try different patterns and combinations.
It also allowed the coaches to start building their understanding of future opponents, some of whom had already made an appearance at the Cadet and Junior Europeans in Porec, Croatia back in 2020.
As always, the BF Commitment and Call It Attitude were the lens for the athletes’ attitudes and behaviours, observed over the days of the competition.
To have the courage to face the challenges of the sport and embrace them. This is to the athlete that has had a challenging season: when offered the opportunity they could have declined, but they stepped forward and helped to allow others more competition time.
To have the confidence to be accountable. To the athlete in the team meeting, who had the honesty to say: “That one is on me, and I will do better.”
To have respect for standards. To the athletes who, after being eliminated, got back into their fencing kit to provide a sparring warm-up for their teammate. To the athlete who spoke to one of their parents and advised them on how to behave; to cheer, but not to get carried away.
To have the focus to listen and to have the strength to be humble. Within the team debriefs, to witness the athletes listen and contribute with openness and honesty. To hear the feedback from the support staff about the willingness of the athletes to engage in difficult conversations.
To have the urge to be an individual who can win and lose, but always learn and grow. To the athlete who was going to make the direct elimination stage of the competition and then just missed out by a couple of hits: to see him smile, recognise what he had learned and take that into the team event and perform for the team.
To have the insight to be a role model. To the athletes on their free days, who planned study time, and coursework and were disciplined enough to find a quiet space to do their work and be ready to train, and still attend a briefing session when required.
To have the desire to be part of a team. After the last event and the final team meeting, all the remaining athletes went out for dinner, and it was good to hear feedback that all athletes across the weapons were sitting relaxing and enjoying everyone’s company – The One Team!
The overall results for this young squad were comparable to the results of the U23 championship in 2022.
Some results were below expectations, and some results have given new impetus to the athletes. It would be a fair comment that due to exams and exam pressures, this was perhaps not the strongest squad that could have attended, but a group to be proud of nonetheless.
For some of the athletes attending, their coaches pointed out that they have further opportunities to strive to get better at this competition – some as many as five more years! Definitely something to look forward to.
This group of athletes conducted themselves with respect for the GBR badge, and the most impressive area I personally witnessed was the ambition to strive for better. I never heard any excuses or blame for a loss, there was honesty when beaten by a better fencer. I saw recognition that with the score at 14 – 14, they made the mistake – an incorrect decision on the final point.
These high standards allowed me the opportunity at the evening team meeting to highlight their no-excuses behaviour to the squad using part of a speech by former British and Irish Lion Coach Jim Telfer, who spoke about ‘the honest player’:
“The honest player gets up in the morning and looks himself in the mirror, and sets his standard. Sets his stall out, and says I’m going to get better. I’m going to get better. I’m going to get better. He doesn’t complain about the food, or the beds, or buses, or the referees. Or all these sorts of things. These are just peripheral things that weak players have always complained about. The dishonest player”.
This group were “The Honest Player”. Finally, a huge thank you to the support team and personal coaches for their commitment to the competition.
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