The Smart Way to Balance Fencing and Life


by Jason Rogers

While Keeth and Erinn Smart must have suffered some teasing about their last name, “smart’ is exactly the word I’d use to describe them. Both are extremely thoughtful, articulate and have graduated from prestigious schools (they hold MBAs from Columbia and Wharton, respectively). They now lead successful careers in business – Keeth is the cofounder and COO of activewear start up, Physiclo, and Erinn creates strategic partnerships for the education publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Both have had to deal with one of the greatest challenges you will face as a fencer – how do you balance fencing with the rest of your life? Paradoxically, it’s the question that Erinn is most often asked and is also the most difficult to answer. There’s no one simple answer or formula because balancing your responsibilities (especially school) and fencing is like playing a never-ending game of Tetris. Each day you must take awkwardly shaped blocks of time and make them all fit together. As you level up, everything moves faster, and it becomes even more difficult to prevent the blocks from overflowing.

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When parents ask advice on how to balance fencing and school, I try to be honest with them. It is extremely hard. Most days, Keeth and I would ride the subway to the Fencer’s Club. We would get there early, so that we would have at least 2 hours at the library, which was located close to the club. We’d study, then get ready for our fencing lessons. We’d go over to the Fencer’s club, take our lessons, practice, and then get back on the subway. Then, we would often be reading on the train, and then do any homework we had to finish up when we got home. Then sleep, wake up, go back to school and repeat.
— Erinn Smart Olympic Silver Medalist, Two-time Olympian Women’s Foil


What I think you see in Erinn’s description is less about how they made it work and more about the strength of their ‘will power’ muscle to just get it all done. Recent studies about characteristics of success have focused on one personality aspect that plays an essential role: Grit.

Grit is the power of passion and perseverance to make good on your commitments. How did Keeth and Erinn build this sense of Grit? Some of it evolves from upbringing. They recall that their parents instilled the importance of work ethic early on, underscored by their father’s experience in the military. However, at the end of the day, it’s up to you to decide just how committed you are. And when times get tough, the one thing that is extremely powerful in maintaining your commitments is understanding precisely WHY you do what you do. When everything is in service of a bigger goal, making the hard choices about how you spend your time becomes a habit and easier over time. 


For most young fencers, doing well in school is their primary commitment. They often think about their teachers and academic life as completely separate from their fencing life. However, it’s important to understand that your teachers are an essential part of your team, which includes your coach, parents and many others. They can help position you to succeed and having them on your side when you struggle is critical. But in order to enlist them to your team, you must pre-communicate what you are trying to achieve in both school and sport. You might even consider using language such as, “Mr. X, I have some important goals I want to achieve, and you are an essential part of my team. I would really appreciate your help and support.” When you take this approach, you help them feel invested in your mission(s). If you wait until you have a problem and then say, “By the way, I can’t turn in my paper on Friday because I have a fencing competition,” you are much less likely to earn their sympathy. Be proactive so you can give them a chance to be flexible when you need to take tests late or some extra help with material that you missed while away competing. 


Most people keep a simple ‘to do’ list of tasks each day to make progress towards their goals. This technique is a good start, however, one small tweak can dramatically increase the probability that you will achieve the items on your list. This method is called if-then planning. It’s a system that’s been backed up by research and is very simple. Instead of just writing down “Finish my calculus homework,” you decide when and where that task will be done. So “Finish my calculus homework” becomes “Finish my calculus homework in the library at 4pm.” You see this method implicit to Erinn’s description of their approach to homework. For example, she and Keeth were always in the library (where) doing homework before practice (when). When you make the task specific you can double or triple your chances of actually doing it.

What are some of your ‘smart’ strategies to get things done?