How can coaches help young fencers reconnect after lockdown?
Take a moment to time travel. It’s early March 2020. Our young fencer is woken, bleary-eyed by their parents. The fencing kit is packed, and our fencer slings it into the back of the car alongside their heavy rucksack filled with folders and books. As the car turns towards school, they think about the upcoming day. There will be some lessons they enjoy, a favourite teacher that inspires, and once again they’ll spend a large portion of the day learning, eating, joking and growing up with their friends.
Plus, it’s fencing day. Their routine of weekly training. There’s the footwork session, followed by an intense lesson from their coach. In sparring, their best friend transforms to foe before the ease of friendship returns at the final salute. For some, the preparation for a major championship is a major focus in their daily routines.
Then, as if out of nowhere, lockdown. Seemingly overnight our young fencer goes from seeing their friends, having day to day human contact, experiencing the (mostly) positive interactions that they learn and develop from, to being in lockdown with their parents for almost 3 months!
What is this? In this ‘lockdown’:
New routines falteringly emerge. No bag to pack. No car to jump into with a slice of toast in hand. Guided Home Learning is being used for the first time and parents are in charge of home-schooling whilst working online themselves. In reality, the routine is hard to establish.
For fencers moving into being teenagers, this is supposed to be a phase of their emerging self. This is the time when rules are there to be challenged, the time they are striving for more freedom – and now they are locked up!
For fencers near the end of their teenage years, what about exams? They have spent nearly two years preparing for that intense, short period of time – the scrutiny of their learning. This is their ”Rite of passage” and part of the transition from school to the next phase of their life. Now they are locked down.
Nobody can visit friends and family. Loved ones are now being described as a ‘threat’ to the fencer, and the fencer is potentially a ‘threat’ to them.
The news never stops. The volume is turned up whenever there is another announcement. Parents talk with strained voices. There is a high level of social media reporting of the pandemic, graphic portrayal of suffering, massive loss of life in countries where the fencer was hoping to travel to compete one day, and the worldwide spread isn’t stopping.
Then there is the secondary level of reporting. Reporters talk of wider impacts and a generation falling behind, missing out on a future because of the blow to their education and attainment. All this is directly witnessed by our young fencers and they hear and see how it impacts on their parents. In some cases, this contributes to an increased feeling of vulnerability, increased levels of anxiety and reported self-harm, and there is an overall impact on young fencers’ mental health and wellbeing…
Let’s move ahead to the present, 100 days into lockdown. Within the context of the experiences laid out above, it is perhaps easier to see why routines are hard to establish. We may understand why there are mood swings, irrational behaviours, increased tiredness. We may be able to see how the new schooling method can lead to Zoom fatigue and loss of concentration.
What has been lost is that typical day with its structure, routine, friendships, opportunity and freedom.
With this in mind, as society is moving out of lockdown, what can coaches do?
Coaching, like teaching, is relationship-based.
Whilst there will be a number of young fencers desperate to fence again, a number will be anxious and have their worries.
We must give consideration to using a relationship-based approach to return to club and competitive fencing:
Relationships – We can’t expect all the fencers to return joyfully. Routines and relationships have been lost and will need to be restored. There is an opportunity to reach out and reduce the possible discomfort of returning to fencing. There are new protocols for running fencing which may help alleviate some potential discomfort.
Community –There is a need to listen to what has happened in this time and be mindful of how these experiences may impact our young fencers as they engage back into club. Their clubs are places of friendship and connections. The listening the compassion clubs can provide will help re-establish the local fencing community.
Open Learning and Development – All of our fencers and those looking to make international competition may feel like they have lost time in their development and even gone backwards. It is important to show them how potential gaps are being addressed.
Metacognition – In their lockdown environments, fencers have been learning in different ways, for example in online sessions. Some of these larger group sessions have been well received. There is also the need of the individual. The learning and development in the club should be catered to individuals for them to reskill and re-build confidence.
Space – Give time and emotional space to the fencer to rediscover their ‘fencer self’, and to find their way. There will be a desire by coaches, parents and fencers to get back to fencing and to attain previous performance levels as soon as possible. It is important to recognise those fencers needing a little longer to get back to where they were.
And now let’s look to the future: Lockdown has created an environment that no one has experienced before. Assuming that fencers will just return and carry on is in part wishful thinking. BF’s work with the True Athlete Project on mindfulness and compassion has placed fencing in a good position to support young fencers’ re-engagement to club and competitive fencing. The next challenge is to be mindful of what is going on in the heads of our young fencers and design a thoughtful process of re-engagement back to fencing.
Carpenter, B. et al (2015) ‘Engaging Learners with Complex Needs’, London, Routledge.
Liberty, K., (2018) ‘How research is helping our children after the earthquakes.’
https://www.healthprecinct.org.nz/stories/how-research-is-helping-our-children-after-the-earthquakes/(accessed 14th April, 2020.)
Young Minds (2020) Coronavirus; the impact on young people with mental health needs. www.youngminds.org.uk
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