Working Together To_Support Your Child's Fencing with Cathy Zagunis and Mariel Zagunis

by Will Spear

“Your job as a parent is to continually bring encouragement. Whether the child wants to a win a tournament or they want to be an Olympic athlete, just say: “Remember your goals. This was your long term goal. To get there, you have to stick with this commitment.” – Cathy Zagunis - Oregon Fencing Alliance

In this article we’re going to discuss the importance of working together as a family. Each member has a crucial role to play to help the fencer achieve their highest level of success. To gain insight into this subject, we’ve spoken to Cathy Zagunis, the mother of two-time Olympic Gold Medalist, Mariel Zagunis and an Olympian herself. We discuss her thoughts and experiences on developing this essential working relationship. We’ve also spoken to Erinn Smart, Olympic Silver Medalist and three-time Olympian, who recounts some of her formative memories of her parent’s involvement with the sport.

We’ve identified four key aspects of the interactions between these highly successful fencers and their parents and have done our best to explain why they work, and what their limitations may be. Keep in mind that Mariel and Erinn are only two case studies, and what worked well for them may not be entirely suitable for everyone. We feel, nonetheless, that they represent two solid examples of how successful fencers and their families communicated and worked together and there is much to be learned from their insight and experiences.

This article is geared towards younger fencers and their parents, as understanding and building the family dynamic is critical during the more formative ages. However, athletes of all ages, and in any sport, should be able to find value in considering the examples set by these remarkable athletes and their families.



Some of the biggest gray areas in intra-family interaction come when the fencer’s expectations are unclear to everyone involved. Just as trying to console or berate a fencer that was happy with their performance can take the wind out of his sails, telling a fencer that was upset with their performance that they did well can be irritating or just feel inauthentic. To avoid this, it is vital that family members have a clear understanding of what the athlete’s expectations are and what they hope to achieve with fencing, both short term and long term.

According to Cathy Zagunis, the best way to ensure family members stay on the same page as the athlete is to have goals clearly laid out ahead of time. The whole process needs to be framed as an ongoing dialogue between the fencer and their family, according to Zagunis:

“Parents have to help the fencer by asking, ‘What is your goal for fencing? What is your goal for school? What is your goal for your social life?’... It’s important to have those conversations, and not just once, but continually, because things always change.” – Cathy Zagunis

If you, as a family member, understand the desires of your fencer, you can better support and help to motivate them. It will help you to avoid pushing too hard and making a sport they love feel more like a chore, or conversely not nudging them firmly enough when they need an extra boost. The onus of responsibility, however, does not fall entirely upon the parent, as the fencer also has to be able to formulate clear expectations and goals for their fencing. They will sometimes need help from their parents and their coach to figure this out and, keep in mind, that these goals often change over time. Your fencer may also need reassurance that it’s OK if their goal is merely to ‘have a good time’ or ‘be better than so-and-so person’. What is important is that the family works together to formulate the proper plan to reach their specific goals.

Zagunis says that part of balancing pushing your child to succeed and letting them enjoy a truly fun sport is being realistic about expectations and what younger fencers can actually accomplish:

“You often have an over-enthusiastic parent who comes in with a seven-year-old and says, ‘I want a private lesson five days a week for my child with your head coach. I don’t want it with any other coach.’ Then, you have to educate them a little bit and say, ‘If you really want your child to stay in fencing, you need to slow down because they’re going to accept it now but they’ll be burned out in six months.’ “ – Cathy Zagunis

Trying to force your children into the role of elite athletes can backfire. Indeed, Zagunis says her own children often let her know that they wanted more and pushed themselves to be better: “I think that my kids, when they started, were very self-motivated… and they let me know their decisions.”

As with most things in life, for someone to really succeed, their motivation has to come from within. They must find their own drive for success. No amount of external pressure will give the athlete the necessary dedication to excel and take them beyond just showing up to practices and workouts. You can read more about how athletes can find motivation in our “Find Your Why” article by Jason Rogers.



However, just because family doesn’t play a crucial role in motivation doesn’t mean that a completely laid-back approach is the best way to approach the sport. Zagunis speaks on her view of the role of a parent and how much parents should encourage their children to practice and in what ways:

“The other thing from the parent’s perspective (and this is something I used with my children) is reminding them of their commitments. Let’s say a fencing tournament weekend is approaching but during the week before they’re tired, or they want to go to a school dance. As a parent, you have to say to them, ‘You made this commitment to your team and their expectation is you’ll be at practice three days a week and you’ve only gone one time this week. We let you off one night because you had to study for your exam but this is your commitment. I expect you to honor your commitment.’ ” – Cathy Zagunis

She believes that although the fencer sets their own goals, parents can help when it comes to making sure the child is reaching those goals and honoring their commitments. Erinn Smart shares a similar memory from her childhood about how her parents helped reinforce her commitment:

“They gave us our freedom, but I think we definitely had this sense of a structured environment, how things should be done, and who you listen to. Working hard was just sort of ingrained in our heads from a young age and is probably what contributed to our long fencing careers.” – Erinn Smart

Zagunis also says it’s important to know when to limit young fencers, even if they are incredibly enthusiastic:

“You must keep in mind the overall health of the child, both physically and mentally, so that they’re not burned out. If they’re young and they’re trying to fence 20 hours a week, it’s too much. They’re going to get injured. They’re going to be tired. They’re not going to enjoy it.“ – Cathy Zagunis

So providing a structure is important, but the goals need to be those of the athlete, not the parents. If they want to fence for fun, or aren’t naturally competitive, no amount of pushing will make them find joy in competition, and will most likely end with them resenting the sport. However, if a young fencer does express an interest in competing and their coach feels they are ready, it is within the parent’s prerogative to help provide the structure to allow them to succeed.



It is extremely important to find the right way to cope with an athlete's loss. Fencers lose a lot. That is the unfortunate reality of the sport; only one person can come away from each tournament undefeated. More than likely, a parent will need to help their child cope with losses at every single tournament they attend. Similar to training, finding the best way to deal with losing requires an ongoing conversation between the parent and the child.

Again, the responsibility of productive communication does not fall solely on the parent. The athlete also has to be willing to have an open dialogue about losing. Sometimes, one of the hardest lessons to learn as an athlete is that your parents are just people trying their best for you, and you need to help them understand how to help you. Limiting your interactions to emotional outbursts or standoffish comments will not lead to a productive support system. Additionally, if you know you’re unable to speak rationally right after a defeat, try to tell them, as calmly as you can, that you’re really worked up and you need some time to cool down before you can talk about it.

Zagunis highlights the importance of parents’ providing support to their children during tournaments and after losses and identifies what she sees as the biggest problem in parent-child interactions:

“What I observe is that when parents are too involved, their emotions get in the way. They have to realize that yelling at their child for losing is never helpful (‘How could you possibly lose to Suzie? You’ve never lost to her before.’) It’s like some parents don’t realize how badly the child feels and that they’re only making them feel worse.” – Cathy Zagunis

Zagunis’ observation is that chastising a child for losing will always do more harm than good; if the child is competitively motivated then they will already feel the pain of defeat. If they aren’t, no amount of outside pressure will light that spark within them. It is also important to acknowledge that while a parental outburst is potentially the most harmful type of feedback after a loss, it is also possible to make the fencer feel disheartened in more subtle ways. A well-meaning parent might tell their child that they lost because the other fencer was simply better (and thus they shouldn’t feel bad), or walk away to give their child space after a hard defeat when unconditional support was what was needed.

Smart’s recounting of her experiences with her parents at a young age mirror Zagunis’ approach:

“Yeah. I guess all parents reacted differently. I think my mom was just like, alright, pull yourself together. Life goes on, sort of like a ‘we'll get over this’ kind of mentality.” – Erinn Smart

Unfortunately, it seems that Smart’s parents are the exceptions; these kinds of negative behaviors happen all the time, and the most common culprits are parents that are unaware of how their reactions make their fencer feel after a defeat. Due to how complicated emotions and intra-family relationships are, this negative feedback can sometimes happen even with the best of intentions. For that reason it is doubly important to keep an open dialogue with the child to ensure that everyone has the best experience possible.

Balancing a desire to support your athlete and their expectations after a loss can be difficult. Telling a child that they did a good job (when he did not) can feel hollow and insincere, and dilute future praise. Criticizing an already upset fencer after a defeat often does more harm than good and could cause them to withdraw and not value future family input.

There is a better way. Zagunis recounts how she has seen other parents react to their children losing at high level competitions:

“I see at the World Championships when a fencer loses, their parent isn’t chastising them (‘How could you lose?’)... Instead, they’re usually congratulating them and saying, ‘That was great. You’ve just had your first world championship experience, and you did the best you could for today. I’m really proud of you.’ ” – Cathy Zagunis

This type of interaction shows support and empathy but no judgment. This is a great place to start for those unsure of how to handle a difficult defeat. I also suggest that if you, as a parent, are not sure how to proceed, befriend a few more-experienced fencing families that you admire and ask how they have handled similar situations.



Here’s an all-too familiar scenario: a young fencer loses a bout that they should not have lost, or had no expectation of losing, and their family member starts yelling at the referee, yelling at their coach, or worse, yelling at the fencer who just lost, telling him what he should or shouldn’t have been doing during the bout. Believe me, it happens!  Zagunis talks about the importance of leaving the job of coaching to the coaches:

“As a parent, you should avoid saying things like, ‘This fencer has a fast attack. You better attack on preparation with them or you better start faster.’ This type of advice is for the coach to give. It’s a mistake for parents to think they know it all, and that they can tell their child what to do, especially if they, themselves, have never fenced.” – Cathy Zagunis

Different people naturally occupy different roles. The fencer needs to compete and stay focused. The coach needs to help the fencer with technical advice and tactics during the bout. It's the task of the family to be supportive and, in some instances, help with motivation. A parent trying to occupy too many of these roles--coaching, support, motivation--is destined to come up short in all areas. The exception to this is a parent-coach relationship which requires very special insight from the parent so as not to create additional stress and unrealistic expectations for the young fencer.

“I think the one major piece of advice that I have is to listen to and go by the coach’s guidance. If the coach says your child is ready to compete and should go to this tournament, then you need to do your best to make it work. If you’re overzealous and you want your child to go to this junior competition, and the coach says, ‘No, they’re not ready for it.’ and you push, and you go anyway, the child usually has a miserable experience.” – Cathy Zagunis

Just remember that coaches have years of experience teaching fencers and intimately understand the structure and pressures of competition. Trying to usurp that role will more often than not lead to sub-par outcomes for everyone involved. It is also very important that your young fencer know that you trust the coach, and that you are working together as a team.

However, Zagunis says you can get involved in other ways once your fencer is ready for competition:

“I think that when a young child needs parental attention or advice, it’s as simple as saying, ‘It’s really hot. Here’s some more water. You better drink some water.’ or ‘This pool was really long. You better have a snack. You’re going to run out of energy.’ This is advice that the child is not going to be thinking about because they’re thinking about their next bout. When they get a little older, it’s not so much, ‘Here’s a sandwich, eat.’ It’s more like, ‘Are you hungry? Do you want me to go get you a sandwich?’ ” – Cathy Zagunis

Again, this role is a very supportive one. You are not intimately involved in the technical or tactical aspects of your kid’s fencing training or competition, but you are involved in the facilitation and their well-being. Making sure your child is properly fed, has enough to drink, gets a proper amount of sleep beforehand and shows up on time (and teaching them to make their own decisions regarding these important aspects of competition) can make the difference between a close defeat and a future victory.



This article is directed at parents of younger and teen fencers to make you aware of how important it is to start communicating about fencing early. As athletes get older, it is natural that parents will have a smaller role in day-to-day decisions, training and competitions. However, it is still important that the roles of fencers, their parents, and their coaches are clearly defined and communicated with little overlap. The fencer’s goals, how they plan to meet those goals, and what they’re willing to give up to achieve those goals need to be part of an ongoing discussion between all three of these parties.

It is important to note that this article isn’t entirely a “to do” list for parents. Fencers must realize that they have a vitally important role to play in how they interact with their families. Not saying anything or having post-loss, emotionally fuelled outbursts (we’ve all been there) is not a productive way to communicate your disappointment, and you cannot expect your family to innately understand how to help you.

The best way to approach this topic with your family is to try to articulate your expectations and desires in terms of why you like fencing, what you want to get out of fencing and how much you are willing to commit to achieve this goal. Then you need to talk to your family about what you feel that you need from them to be able to accomplish this. The most common reason why family members aren’t helpful at a tournament is that they don’t have this information and therefore don’t know how to help you. This article is a great start and it’s important to remember that every person and every family is different, but the major key to success (in almost everything) is good communication. Having open and honest discussions is the best way to create better family dynamics on competition day.



*Header Photo of Cathy and Mariel courtesy Oregon Fencing Alliance and Serge Timacheff / FIE