Fencing is hard work. Very hard work. There are bruises and sore muscles, long days and sometimes too much to balance it seems. Yet we are still thankful for everything that these tough challenges bring to us, for so many reasons.
Everyone right now seems to be reflecting on what it means to be thankful, and we are not an exception. It’s nice to pause and reflect, to take stock of what we are getting out of the things that we are doing in life. Fencing is obviously one of the big things that we’re doing!
Thinking of thanks on this fencing journey
This sport, like lots of sports, can be very hard. We fencers all have a love/hate relationship with that hardness. If we didn’t enjoy the challenge, none of us would be here, but it takes grit and determination to get through it. We have to continue to push through, no matter what, or else leave the sport. That last one isn’t an option for those who are passionate about fencing.
Speed and accuracy are notoriously tough things to mix. It’s something that we experience with our fencing, and it’s a thing that can push us far behind. No one wants to get caught on the wrong side of making a mistake, but it happens all the time. In particular it can happen with equipment checks at fencing tournaments.
We saw this first hand with many of our fencers at the recent November NAC in Milwaukee and this experience prompted me to write this blog.
Timing is Tough
Many of our fencers arrived late at night before the following day’s competition. They didn’t want to miss an extra day of school, because of course they were concerned with their academic performance as well as their fencing performance. That’s understandable. However, this meant that they could not participate in the equipment check the night before as armorers already left. They had nothing left to do but to come in the morning, just an hour before the event registration was done and the venue was open.
The line was huge, wrapping around and moving slowly. Some of them waited themselves, and some of them had parents who waited for them. Either way, the whole process took the entire hour. That hour is time without the ability to do anything else that’s really productive, even with parents waiting in line. All of this is just to get the equipment – mask, body cords, and glove, back just a few moments before the pools got started.
The result is that they didn’t get to fence in the warm up bouts before the pools. Some of the fencers were barely even able to warm up and stretch. This means that when they went into the pools, their warm up was literally the first few pool bouts.
This is a brutal way to go about fencing. Forget about precision or mastery of the actions, forget about timing or distance control. Their fingers were hardly able to follow the target. This left many of the initial bouts just doomed to failure. At best, they were unnecessarily difficult and ineffective. Points that should have been scored were not scored, and many points were scored against these fencers.
Of course it’s painful to see it go down this way. These fencers got all the way to the NAC, only to perform in this mediocre way. Once you do a poor job in the pools, you then have an unnecessarily difficult time in the Direct Elimination rounds. That seeding follows through the tournament. Not to mention the mental push down that also follows these fencers. It makes things very tough, for no really good reason.
There have been many times here at the AFM blog that we’ve written about the importance of tactical thinking in fencing. This sport of ours is not one where the strictly physical qualities of an athlete can determine the outcome of the bout. It is the mental and tactical savviness that is most important for success.
Extending tactical thinking beyond the scope of just the match allows fencers to make the most of opportunities. When fencers take on this whole-competition mindset for growth, the possibilities are simply huge. The pool rounds are a place particularly where fencers have the chance to grow, in part because this section of fencing competition is often overlooked, especially by beginner fencers.
Improving through the pools
A typical pool rounds lasts for one and a half to two hours, with six or seven fencers in each pool. Each fencer fences all of the other fencers individually in the pool.
For a pool of seven fencers, there twenty-one bouts that are fenced. These go in an order like this: 1 vs. 4, 2 vs. 5, 3 vs. 6, 7 vs. 1, and so on, where each number means the number assigned to a specific fencer who has been selected to be in the pool. That means that in the first bout, fencer #1 competes against fencer #4, then when they are done the referee calls #2 against #5, then #3 against #6, then #7 against #1, and so on.
This means that you will see all of the fencers fence from the beginning of the pools until your second bout, with the exception of your first bout. And if you are #7, then it’s even better – you will see all 6 fencers fence 1 bout before you step on the strip for the first time.
Moreover, you yourself will fence a total of 6 bouts out of 21, which means that for the 15 bouts that you are not fencing, you’re just waiting. What do fencers typically do during this time? This definitely depends on how advanced they are in fencing. Beginners will do whatever they can to pass the time – playing games, listening to music or audiobooks, chatting with their friends.
Serious competitors will spend this pool time learning their pool opponents.
Getting kicked out of a match is something that many fencers have thankfully never experienced. In fencing, the black card is the method that officials use to remove a fencer from competition when they break the code of honor. Severe offences mean an ejection in fencing. While sport is at its heart about good will and good sportsmanship, unfortunate events like ejections do happen.
After the USA Fencing strengthened its protocols on the black card a few weeks ago, it’s been on a lot of people’s minds. Black cards are serious, and they are necessary. Bad behavior or dangerous actions should never be tolerated by the fencing community, or any sport. The new protocols emphasize the seriousness of the black card offense.
With all this thinking about the black card, we started thinking about how ejection plays out in other sports. Events like the Olympics and World Cups have had a fascinating history of players being removed from matches. Fencing has some remarkable stories too.
The black card is the end of the road for an athlete in a competition. It marks the definitive and negative end of competition for a fencer, or for any athlete. It’s not even a loss, though the opponent technically gets a win. A black card is worse than a loss, because it is not a measure of athletic skill or prowess. It’s a demonstration that the athlete could not hold up the code of honor within the sport.
A black card ejects an athlete from competition for egregious behavior.
To be clear, this behavior does not have to be vile or violent. An athlete can get a black card for not showing up to the match on time or for leaving the match early. If they simply stop participating, for any of a number of reasons, they can get a black card.
It’s notable that the black card is not just for athletes. Coaches, spectators, and even referees (in theory) can get a black card and get ejected from a match. If a parent is disruptive, even if it is through overly loud and inappropriate cheering or repeatedly getting too close to the strip during the match and not following a referee’s instruction, they can be ejected from the tournament with a black card.
Just before you step onto the strip for a bout, what’s going through your mind? In those few minutes before the bout, as you’re ready to step onto the strip and face your opponent, there are a lot of things to consider. How can you maximize your preparation? That’s exactly the question we are going to answer.
What we’re talking about here aren’t the big, sweeping parts. We’re not talking about what you need in order to prepare for the fencing competition, like how to pack your bag or what you need to do in the days before. This is right in those few moments before the match itself, the heat and height of the competitive experience. These things go for bouts that you might experience in your club on a daily basis, but they also apply to big bouts that you participate in at regional or national tournaments. This is what you do each time, every time before you go to fence, no matter where you are.
This has got to be a habit. Just as you want to get your footwork or your form so ingrained into your mind that you don’t give it another thought, so too do you want to get these things to be automatic. Doing so is going to free your mind to focus on other things like strategy.
We’re going to break down fencing bout preparation into two parts here – the small physical things and the mental. Each of these is important in its own right and has to be taken into account, and when you put them both together it’s absolutely wonderful.