The Balancing Act: Managing Tournament Expectations with Parents

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Damien providing some coaching at the Maccabi games.

“Dear competitors: May your opponents’ tears be sweet, may their coaches be overly invested, and may your parents keep you plied with adequate nourishment and hydration.”

-Graham Wicas

A couple of months ago, I wrote an article discussing what a coach should expect of parents during a fencing tournament. In “Athletes and parents: A parent’s guide to fencing tournaments,” I talked about how the parent and coach must always work in tandem to best benefit the student, and how to communicate with the athlete throughout a long tournament day. With the behemoth Capital Clash SYC coming up this weekend, I thought this would be a good opportunity to discuss the other side of the gun, and talk about what a parent should expect of a coach.

If you’re a coach, and you’ve heard parents say: “you didn’t spend enough time coaching my child,” you’re probably not alone. It’s a common complaint a coach will hear following a large tournament, where s/he is often tasked with looking after a dozen or more students. Tournament venues are concrete prisons sometimes spanning the length of a city block or two, and the distance between one strip to another can seem like a mile (especially when you’re out of shape, like me). The difficulties of a big event are further compounded with youth fencers, who are like Pokemon, insofar that they die if you don’t pay close attention to them during a tournament. Managing time equally can be a difficult proposition, and keeping the customers (the parents and athletes) feeling as if they’ve made a good investment in the coach’s intellectual capital can be an even more difficult task. It’s important to lay a few ground rules and expectations prior to a tournament so a parent knows what they’re buying.

The coach’s fundamental role is to prepare his students for competition—and once the competition begins, the onus of success falls almost exclusively on the student. During competition, both the parent and the athlete must consider the coach to be a consultant who provides a third person perspective on the bout. The coach is paid to provide nuggets of advice and small tweaks to the fencer’s game, but his strip coaching is a luxury, not a necessity. Both the parent and the athlete must be prepared for bouts in which the coach will be providing advice elsewhere. Particularly with younger fencers, their minds can go astray when they start thinking “where’s coach?” instead of “how am I going to score my first touch?” Don’t expect the coach to be your security blanket for every minute s/he’s in the venue.

Coaches and parents should devise a system for alerting the coach when a bout is about to occur. Fencing venues can be massive, so make sure the coach and parents have exchanged contact information early on. It’s tough for a coach to be aware of the status of his athletes at any point in time. While coaching in Florida, I devised a system with the parents to text me status updates so I could economize my time and know where to be at any given point:

Damien’s Notification System:

  1. Once strip assignment is given, parent texts coach with location.
  2. Parent texts “Jimmy is on deck, strip E4.” Remind the coach of the strip location with every text.
  3. As the athlete prepares to fence, parent texts coach: “Jimmy is plugging in, strip E4.”
  4. Should the coach be strip coaching elsewhere, parent texts the outcome of the bout with the following details: score, athlete’s current record, when the next bout is e.g. “Jimmy won 5-4. He’s 3-3 right now. He’ll fence in three bouts.” This allows me to prioritize where time is spent as the day goes on (more on this later).
  5. Alert the coach if you think the athlete is on the verge of a mental meltdown and needs a confidence boost e.g. “Jimmy’s rabies have overtaken his mind and he bit a ref and got black carded.”

When pools begin, all students are created equal. But… The coach should begin pools by distributing his time evenly with students, regardless of whether it’s the coach’s beginner/s or his all-star fencer/s. However, if a student begins the day 0-5 without a prayer to advance to eliminations, the coach is best spent using his time with the students who are on the fringe of advancing or who are on the verge of a high seed. If the event promotes all participants to eliminations, than all students remain equal throughout pools.

The coach should be sweating. The coach should be running from strip to strip after every bout. Time is money, and if the coach is casually sauntering through the venue, then the parent has every right to be peeved. Break time occurs in between pools and eliminations, and if the coach is not running around like a vilde chaya (I just used Yiddish. Deal with it) than the coach is not living up to his end of the bargain.

“What the coach can do that the parents cannot, at a tournament, is to get the fencer to believe in his or her own abilities, and to manage the downside when they are defeated.” –Taro Yamashita. Taro, the head coach of Riverside Fencing Club also noted that “During the tournament, the coach’s impact is usually minimal, and is akin to good cheering.” When a parent provides correction during a tournament, a fencer can feel as if it’s an attack on them and worsen the mental/emotional confidence; however, when a coach provides a pep talk, the student is more likely to internalize it as they have familiarity with the coach in that motivating (or sometimes demotivating) role.

If the coach gives tough love, that’s okay.
If a coach relentlessly belittles the athlete without purpose, to the point of abuse, then this violates your expectations you should have. No matter the athlete’s performance, abuse is never necessary and should be taken seriously by the parent.

Don’t expect a lesson. I’m often asked “Can you give my kid a lesson before the tournament?” Nope. Perhaps the day before in the venue, but the athlete’s physical and mental energy is best conserved for the tournament itself, not a lesson beforehand.

Above all else, remember that the coach and parent are a team working together for the athlete. When the parent puts their money down, these are a few of the things they should remember so there are few surprises by the end of the day. For all competing in the Capital Clash, best of luck, and I’ll see you there!

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