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A Sporting Chance – The Buzz Magazines

Originally published in The Buzz Magazines, May 2008:

A Sporting Chance

 By Cheryl Laird, Staff Writer

May 2008

You know those moms who complain about driving to all their kid’s sports activities, the ones who go on about how their tyke needs to be ferried to soccer, basketball, baseball, swim team, and so on?

They sigh. But look closer. Underneath their burdened expression lurks the barely contained satisfaction of a proud mama.

We see it. We—the moms of the non-sports kids—smile and ask polite questions. Sometimes we fish for information: “So, do you ever have to make your kid go to practice?” “Does he like it?”

“Oh, yeah, he loves it,” is a common response. And we glance over at our kid, who is sitting still, reading his book, completely ignoring the running kids.

But occasionally, we hear glimmers of another dynamic. One woman I know cheerfully admits to forcing her girls to play soccer against their will.

“It’s good for them,” she says. “When I was little, I was never made to do anything. So I can’t do anything.”

What to do? We know the dangers of overscheduling our kids and how we’re supposed to respect our child’s innate inclinations.

On the other hand, we hear about how kids today are overweight, how they sit still too much, and don’t move their bodies.

Perhaps worse, we remember (or were one of) those kids who were left out because they couldn’t throw a ball, or dodge the dodgeball, or tease each other in the easy manner that teammates instinctively have.

The good news is if your child is at all motivated to find a sport, be assured there is one out there. Just cast your net wide and look beyond the obvious.

Mason Cole, 8, struggled in sports until he discovered tae kwon do. Now he is working on his black belt.

Mason Cole, 8, struggled in sports until he discovered tae kwon do. Now he is working on his black belt.

Laurel Agris’s son, 8-year-old Mason Cole, is a star academically, and he plays chess for hours. But in sports, he struggled. It didn’t help that he was small for his age.

“He couldn’t catch the ball. He couldn’t hit the ball. We tried gymnastics. He’d flop sideways doing a somersault,” she says. “If he didn’t care, then I wouldn’t have cared. But he wanted to find something.”

Mason found his calling with tae kwon do. The Korean martial art combines the mental and physical. Mason began taking lessons at Young Brothers Tae Kwon Do, and memorized Korean terms and complicated kata forms. His size was no hindrance.

Now, when he must participate in “Share Your Talent Day” at school, he has something to show off. He is working on his black belt, and mom says his self-esteem has skyrocketed.

Liz Donnenberg, 15, likes the mental aspects of fencing used to figure out her opponents.

Liz Donnenberg, 15, likes the mental aspects of fencing used to figure out her opponents.

For Liz Donnenberg, karate didn’t do the trick. Soccer was a nightmare. As mom Vicki remembers it, “She would stand in the middle of the field and just cry.” Vicki later learned that Liz’s dyslexia may have contributed to her difficulty with team sports.

But everything changed when Liz tried fencing one summer and discovered that she was good at it. Now 15, Liz has fenced for years at Salle Mauro Fencing Academy and has achieved the highest rating, an A, in epee (one of three fencing weapons). She hopes to win a college scholarship and make the 2012 Olympics.

“It’s all mental,” she says of fencing. “It’s your willpower, who wants to win the most, and figuring out your opponent. It’s like physical chess.”

Many kids who don’t like sports will try fencing, thanks to swords and swashbuckling fantasies. Vicki says fencing tournaments have “a completely different feeling than going to a football game. A lot of fencers look like people you’d see at the library.”

At the Texas Rock Gym, with its expanse of walls dotted with colorful grips, you see another sort of athlete. There, as rock music plays, members of a youth climbing team scurry up and down, preparing for indoor competitions and outdoor adventures.

Stuart Cook, 11, “belays” a safety line while Gus Cotton, 12, hangs from above, totally dependent on his partner. Gus hollers down: “All the other sports are man against man. But this is man against Mother Nature. Mother Nature can kick your butt any time.”

Margaret Fowler, 13, likes that archery is “a thinking sport.”

Margaret Fowler, 13, likes that archery is “a thinking sport.”

Some sports, like archery, require less movement (making it ideal for athletes in wheelchairs) but no less body control. “I equate it to being like a violinist. It comes down to eye coordination and ability to focus,” says Kevin Whiteford of Viking Archery.

Margaret Fowler, a 13-year-old archer who says she earned the No. 1 spot in Texas in 2006 for her age group, likes that her sport makes her think, and that it’s unique.

“When you tell people about it,” she said, “they’re like ‘Wow, you’re interesting.’ ”

Why I coach


When my cousin came to see me fence at a NAC (North American Cup), I took the time to show her a few of the basics.

In my experience, few coaches make a conscious decision to start coaching. It starts small – you’re either the most experienced or the most gregarious of a group of fencers and the newbies need guidance. You start by copying the lessons you remember your own coaches teaching, and eventually start crafting your own style. I’ve been coaching officially for almost ten years, but it started a few years before that when I was a fencer in the Texas A&M Fencing Club. Our real coach, Houston Sword Sports co-owner Dan Gorman, was deployed to Iraq for a year and the other officers and I took over coaching duties to make sure the club didn’t fall too far behind while he was gone. Still, I didn’t start coaching formally until I moved to Houston and found that I could trade my services as a supervisor of kids for free membership in the club. I found that I really enjoyed coaching, and all these years later it is still a source of joy and pride. Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite things about coaching:

  1. Sometimes, you get a student who you can tell has never excelled in a sport before, but fencing just clicks for them. I love seeing the excitement on that face as they learn to control the weapon and their body. Over the course of a few months, I’ve seen young fencers transform from the one picked last for team sports to the one winning bouts and medals in class tournaments.
  2. Other fencers might be even more challenging to coach, where they don’t naturally grasp the mechanics of fencing, or even if they do they lack the coordination or speed to win against others in their class. With these, the challenge is to find the right combination of drills and tactics to keep their motivation up while helping them find their own perfect strategy. This is a kind of problem solving skill that I didn’t possess when I started coaching, but has become easier with experience.
  3. A lot of fencing, and by extension a lot of coaching, is mental. Sometimes in the heat of competition, a fencer becomes so stressed that they forget fundamentals or neglect effective tactics. Knowing when to push a fencer, when to back off, when to give specific advice (“when he gets close, use a beat attack”) and when to give general advice (“take your time”) – getting that mix right is rewarding for both coach and student.

This doesn’t make it into the list because it is simultaneously one of my favorite and my most frustrating aspects of coaching: when a student beats you on strip. Maybe someday I’ll be able to put enough of my ego aside to just be proud of how well they’re fencing, but for now I’m going to make sure I get my own practice time in, too!

Coach Liz Mayerich – Why I Fence

I started fencing in college, for the same reason that a lot of people start fencing – it sounded cool at the time. And it still is pretty cool, and fun to wave swords at people. But there are a lot of other reasons that I keep coming back to fence, week after week and year after year.

  1. It’s a great workout. Fencing is kind of a weird mix between aerobic and anaerobic exercise. The action is higher intensity than I could maintain for longer than a few minutes, but there are frequent pauses that allow you to rest and cool down. It will also strengthen your lower body and core, and your dominant arm. You need to go to the gym if you don’t want one arm to get really scrawny comparatively. Which brings me to…
  2. It’s a great motivation to do other workouts. Fencing is my motivation to run and lift weights. Just fencing all day isn’t enough to keep me in top competitive form, especially in that nondominant arm. I’m not big on cardio, but when I run regularly I can feel the difference when I’m on strip.
  3. I don’t have to be the biggest or the strongest. Since fencing is about strategy and technique, I can face off with people who are much taller or stronger than I am and still be on an equal footing. It’s also fun to see a skinny ten-year-old get on strip with a much larger teenager and have the bout be evenly matched.
  4. There’s nothing like scoring a beautiful hit. Some touches are just cooler than others. Sometimes it’s luck – your tip happens to be in the right place at the right time and they just run onto it – and sometimes it’s the result of careful planning and setup. In epee, where the whole body is target and the best place to hit is the wrist, there’s such a great feeling of satisfaction when you watch your opponent readjust his sleeve after you hit him with a perfect wrist touch.