Friday, 11 January 2013

Fencing (Ξιφασκία)

I'm at the National Fencing Boys' and Girls' Championships this weekend, held at the OAKA stadium.

When my son saw the picture of the sword at the municipal gymnasium, he decided that fencing was the sport he wanted to take part in. Thanks to Zorro and The Three Musketeers, we have all become endeared to dashing young men wielding swords deftly in the air. But we thought it wasn't a sport he could keep moving in or take an active role in, or learn to work as a member of a team. After a year of fencing, we talked him into enrolling in basketball instead, a sport which keeps you active where you must cooperate with other people for your team to win. That's what the world is all about these days, being a member of team that can quash an opponent.

I remember how much I hated team sports when I was young. (With boobs at the age of ten, I wasn't really built for sports anyway.) When I was in Form 2 (as it used to be called then - I don't have a clue what it is known as now in NZ), our class teacher made me and another Greek girl (whose Greek body equally hated sports) captains of the opposing softball teams. The announcement was made without any notice to the mixed-abilities, mixed-race class of my co-ed primary school. As soon as the other kids heard who was going to be head each side, they instantly all made a very audible groan at the same moment. They all knew that both of us were hopeless at sport.

Sword craftsman

As captains we had to choose our team members. Every time both I and the other captain chose a team member, the other child would look down on the ground and then come and join the forlorn queue forming behind me and Maria (yes! we even had the same name). There was not much to choose between us. But all that the other children saw in us were that we were not made to be captains of a sports team. They didn't realise that it was not the captain that needed to be the best player - it was the team that had to be good, and the captain had to ensure that the other team members were pulling their weight. For the first (and only) time in my class group's history of playing softball, no one cared if they played well.

I don't remember who won that day. It isn't even important for me. But I do remember that I instantly understood why the teacher made me and Maria team captains. She wanted to instill a sense of responsibility in us. She wanted us to have the confidence to lead. She didn't want to make better softball players of us. She just wanted to make us feel good about ourselves, and she probably succeeded. The problem with each of our teams wasn't the captains' disinterest in sports; it was the lack of trust shown to us by the other team members.

Practice board for hits
Maria and I were not very sporty, but we were good students and it's no surprise that we did well in our later studies (she became a doctor, and I don't mean a PhD graduate). When we worked alone, we were able to excel in our fields. But when we were forced to work with others, we often found that we couldn't convince them to make similar decisions to ours. We were trying to cooperate with them, but they weren't always cooperating with us. Some leaders are under the false impression that they are in charge, when in fact, their own approach may be misguided, less encompassing or elitist.

It's the same with my son. After three years of basketball, I knew he had no interest in taking part in it. There were many moments where I realised that this team-sports/group-member/keeping-active thing was the wrong approach on certain people, my son being one of them. One example I recall strongly is when the new school year started. My son's lessons took place in a school gymnasium after school hours. The free schoolbooks that Greek children are distributed at the start of the first term had been piled up in the gymnasium, around the basketball court. While the young players were lined up in front of the coach, I noticed that my son was the only one of those under-10s who was not looking at the coach. He was looking behind him, eyes to the ground, at the schoolbooks.

The local news websites picked this shot to ilolustrate the reporting of the events - I was surprised to see my son in it!
Some of us are not made for team sports or contact sports. Some of us prefer to work in small groups, getting to know our opponent well, rather than be faced by a large group with many members. I stopped forcing him to go to basketball and he started back at the fencing club. Fencing is a sport that requires great concentration, the special uniform makes you sweat, you can't take too many steps (more than 50 and you lose the match), and the speed of a game is fast. Last month, he took part in the 1st Pan-Cretan competitions last month and came third in his age group. This weekend he's taking part in the National competitions. I hope he wins something again, not because I want him to be a world-class athlete, but because I can see he likes what he's doing.

My son's individuality has not helped him in the consewrvative school system that the Greek one is. His teachers accept the idea that if the majority of children are doing something, then the minority that is not doing it must be mistaken. Therefore, it's landed him into more trouble, not helped by the fact that his is a clever child that does not work hard to show he earned his accolades. If he continues to take a follow a more unique path, through his chosen sport, he will be exhibiting an endurance that is bound to open doors for him later, especially in an unusual sport like fencing. If he applies himself to it, he can truly say: "I did it by myself."

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