Fencing and tennis are not entirely different sports. Both are individual, with two opponents and a referee required. Both are prized sports in the Olympics. Both invoke a great deal of passion from their athletes. Both are famous for their grunting and yelling during matches. While we might not have a ball and they might not have a sword, the dynamics of the two are similar.
The furor surrounding tennis superstar Serena William over the last few weeks is almost impossible to ignore. From her Black Panther inspired catsuit that was banned from the French Open to her showdown with a referee in the U.S. Open Final that seemingly cost her the Grand Slam title, she has been an athlete swirling in controversy.
No matter where you fall in terms of her behavior or the behavior of the judge during that U.S. Open Final, we can all agree that there are plenty of lessons that athletes, including fencers, can learn from what happened.
Take a wide lens view
Our brains are hardwired to identify threats. This survival instinct has worked well for humanity for thousands of years, and while we aren’t being chased by sabre toothed tigers anymore, those instincts are still around.
Serena Williams was in the midst of a high stakes final match, one with lots of money and glory on the line and possible record setting. Though she is no stranger to this level of pressure, that doesn’t mean that holding it together is a walk in the park for her either. When the referee first accused her of cheating (by getting hand signals from her coach, which is illegal in tennis), that registered in her already adrenaline fueled brain as a threat. She reacted to it accordingly.
Fencers who compete experience this same thing. You’re at a competition, one that you’ve worked hard to reach and have perhaps traveled far to get to. Money has been spent to get here, people have sacrificed to support you. If the referee steps in a makes a call that you feel is unjustified, it registers as a threat. That instinctual survival mode kicks in for you just as it did for Williams, and your body and mind thrust you forward to react. Losing your cool in a match is never going to serve you though. Whether or not Williams was treated unfairly because of her gender in the U.S. Open Final is another matter, but we can say that she lost her cool.
So how can fencers prevent this from happening? The key is to take a wide lens view of the situation instead of a close up.
- Recognize that you’re reacting
- Observe the feelings you’re feeling
- Make a rational decision about how to act
In that moment, you have to get outside of the situation. And it’s got to happen fast. It’s good for athletes to practice this well ahead of time, to think about it and plan for it. When that seemingly unfair call comes from a referee, because it will eventually if you competitively fence for long enough, you must be prepared.
Fencing is physical chess. To win the chess match, you have to think rationally.
Take a minute
By a minute, we don’t necessary mean sixty seconds. Take few long deep breathes to give that rush of survival hormones long enough to flush out of your brain, slowing your heart rate back down and easing your racing thoughts.
It can be as simple as counting or mentally singing a song that calms and focuses you. During this time, you’re not allowed to say anything back to the referee, to challenge their call or to make a snappy comeback. We’ve seen fencers lose their temper, and the penalties are serious. While fencing is a safe sport, injury is possible when anger gets involved. Throwing the mask or the weapon is a great way to get a black card and be ejected from the tournament altogether.
In Williams’ sport of tennis, players have been known to strike their racquets or bend them to the point of breaking. No one needs to do that in sport. There’s never a reason for rough language towards anyone or violent outbursts with the equipment.
By taking just few seconds, you give your brain time to realize that this situation isn’t so dire after all. Tell yourself that this will be alright, that you’re safe. Redirect your focus to a specific goal during this time – the goal of making a point.
Practice your reactions
No one knows you better than you know yourself. If you have a tendency to react in a big way to an opponent sneaking in a point, then practice how you’ll react to it. If you get a flash of uncontrollable anger when a fencing referee makes a call against you, then work on that in practice with your coach. You can mentally rehearse a variety of scenarios.
A great way to do this is when you’re watching other fencers. Notice how they react to various scenarios and think about how you would react if you were in that situation. Walk through first your instinctual reaction, then think about what the best reaction would be. Use the tools that you’ve got, like taking a wide lens view and waiting it out for sixty seconds.
Becoming a better fencer isn’t just about rehearsing footwork or hitting a target effectively, it’s about controlling your mind and your emotions. You wouldn’t go to a competition without first training your body would you? Then why would you go without training your mind?
If you haven’t thought about what’s going to happen before it does, then those survival instincts are going to kick in and you’ll be out of control. As we saw with Serena Williams, even decades of competition experience are no match for the level of emotion that we feel in that moment. Learning to apply the same level of discipline to your emotional development as you do to your physical development is a recipe for improving your fencing performance.
Humanize your opponent
Your opponent is not your enemy. They are a fellow fencer who is just as passionate about winning as you are. While you want to win, of course you want to win, you don’t want to win at any cost. This person on the other end of the strip is a human just as you are, and they deserve the respect that you want for yourself.
This is one thing that we can very much learn from Serena Wiliams and the U.S. Open. Though she became angry with the referee, she never directed that anger at her opponent Naomi Osaka. It’s important here to understand that Osaka is sixteen years younger than Williams and has long held Williams as a hero and role model. It’s almost like a fencer going up against Valentina Vezzali in an Olympic final. This was also Osaka’s first Grand Slam win. What we saw in this match was Williams fought hard to win, but embraced Osaka when she was beaten. There was absolutely zero sense that Williams harbored anger to her rival, even given the high emotions of the match itself. It’s regrettable that this victory for Naomi Osaka will always been seen through the lens of controversy, but it’s heartening to know that there is no bad blood.
When we see our opponents as humans, when we build camaraderie with them in spite of competition, it lifts us all up. That’s what sport should be about!