Stepping into the tournament venue at the start of a fencing competition is exhilarating. The air is saturated with possibility, because truly anything is possible for a competitive fencer on a tournament day.
Failure is a natural part of competition, and it’s a natural part of life. Fencers face little failures every day in training, not just in competition. Overcoming setbacks is a skill that we as people must develop. We don’t want to paint it as a big monster to be frightened of, but we do want to minimize it!
Through talking to fencers and parents, it occurred to me that there are seven places during the natural flow of competition where fencers face failure. A typical competition consists of several bouts in pool rounds, followed by several bouts in the Direct Elimination round, and finally there is the feeling of loss when a whole day or a whole competition doesn’t go the way a fencer wants it to. There are similar patterns through the competition format where fencers potentially find themselves struggling with loss.
These seven common points of failure in a fencing tournament are challenges that we see fencers come up against again and again. Knowing them goes a long way towards transforming these potential failures into opportunities.
The First Touch
That initial burst of energy at the start of a match can be a determining factor in what happens going forward. There is nothing material about getting the first point – it’s still anyone’s match to win or lose. What matters here is the mental aspect of the game.
In that instant, it’s easy for a fencer to have thoughts run through their head like lightning that say “This opponent is better than I am! I can’t win!” Of course on the other side, the fencer who gets the first touch can also become overconfident in that instant “First point yes! I’m much better than my opponent!”
Fencers must train themselves not to overemphasize that first point in either direction. It’s only the first step on a long staircase! Once you’re at the top that first step looks very far away and unimportant, which is the real truth of the situation. Letting go of the mindset that it went from a tie (0-0) to your opponent having the lead is critical. It’s only one touch!
2. Loss of the Lead Fencing
Matches go back and forth between who has the lead. Constantly. Maybe their coach intervened or your opponent just got the best of you in a moment.
It only matters who is leading at the final buzzer! However when a fencer has a lead early in a match, they often become attached to it too soon. Being ahead feels comfortable. It feels good! But it doesn’t serve your end goals to become attached to a lead during a bout.
Losing a lead during a match can feel like a bucket of cold water has been thrown over you. That can easily change the momentum of a match because it fills you with fear and you don’t have time to recover. This is a place where breath work and focus exercises as part of your training regimen can really help. As a competitive fencer, you have to learn to master that adrenaline rush in a match, because frankly you don’t have time to think yourself out of it.
3. Loss of a Bout
The loss of a bout during the pools feels devastating to many fencers, even when they still have a path to moving forward in a tournament. That loss can become overwhelming in the pools because the mind now has time to spiral its way into chaos.
You’ve got to focus on coming into the next bout fresh and ready to go. Shaking off a loss isn’t easy, but it’s necessary. A good tactic here is to get physical so that your brain doesn’t take over. Do some jumping jacks or some push-ups. Pull your mind into your body.
Mentally, a good tactic is to run through your training. Let go of thinking about that last match by filling your mind with your coach’s wisdom or your drills. The whole key here is to let go of the loss and look ahead.
4. Loss of a Period In DE’s
It’s common for a fencer to find themselves going into the one minute break with a score that’s behind their opponent. It feels like they have the upper hand and you’re down. This can be especially intimidating when you’re 14-something down in the last period.
You’ve only got one minute to get your head in the game and turn it around. It is ALWAYS possible to turn it around. That’s a philosophy of the grit that every fencer must adopt. It’s never over until the referee calls the match as over!
To deal with the loss of a period, mentally run through your training in those seconds. Look at what you can do to improve your performance, focusing on your strengths and looking for an opening in your opponent’s style. Tactical fencing is called for at this point, because whatever strategy you were using up until this point is obviously not what you need.
5. Failure in the Pools
Bad seeding before the DE rounds can feel like a bad tournament. It. Is. Not. Fencers can go very hard on themselves when they feel disappointed by their performance in the pools.
This one is incredibly important because if you are likely to face a tough opponent in the first round, and if your mental state isn’t on point then you’re less likely to succeed. You still made it to the DE!
This situation calls for a measured response, fencing one point at a time. Sometimes we need to look at the big picture in order to be motivated, and sometimes we need to just take it one step at a time. One thing is for sure – if you think that you’ve got no chance then you’ve already lost!
6. Lost DE in a Multi-event Tournament
A direct elimination loss can be soul crushing for a fencer. You’ve been eliminated!
In a multi-event tournament such as nationals, NAC’s, RYC’s, RJCC’s, or ROC’s, direct elimination of course doesn’t mean your tournament is over in the slightest. It’s your job to let go of the loss and go into your match the next day as though nothing happened. If you hold onto those feelings of loss, you’ll be weighed down and unable to get your good fencing done.
That overnight is the big thing here. That feeling of loss can interrupt your sleep and your appetite on the physical side of things. On the mental side, it can consume your thoughts and make it difficult to focus. The first thing here is to stay on your physical game. Go for a run, do a bit of yoga, or whatever physical activity is your thing. Don’t wear yourself out but do get into your body. Make yourself eat healthy foods and avoid taking comfort in junk food in your hotel room. Hydrate! Drink water like it’s going out of style and you’ll find that your mind stays sharper and you sleep better. Speaking of sleep, go to bed on time and get your rest of the next day.
In the morning before you head back in, go for a walk and clear your mind. Sunshine and fresh air can be magical when you need to reset yourself. Then you can go into your next day feeling on point and ready to meet the challenges in your other event!
7. Lost competition
The big failure is going home without reaching your goals in a competition. This might be because you lost to a specific opponent, because you weren’t able to use skills that you’d been working hard on, didn’t place in tournament that you trained hard for, because you didn’t get the points you needed to qualify for another tournament, or something else entirely. Missing your mark at a competition can be overwhelming.
There is always something to learn and grow from in a loss. It’s important to internalize those lessons, but it’s also just important to let it go and look ahead to the next competition. If you lost to a specific opponent in your last DE or pools, you must take a look at how to meet them again in the next competition.
The luxury here is that, while it can feel like a big loss, there is also time to process and learn. If you aren’t videoing your tournament matches then you should be! Watching and analyzing your matches gives you the chance to break it down and learn specific things to fix. It can be intimidating at first, but then it feels wonderful when you realize the concrete steps you can take moving forward.
Hands down the best thing to do in the wake of a competition loss is to sit down with your coach and your goals. Put the loss in context. See how the loss changes your long-term goals. Realize that one competition loss isn’t the end of the world by looking at it through a wide lens.
Failure happens all the time. It happens in big and small ways. In every bout, in every round, in every competition there are failures. Empowered fencers can become successful by looking straight at these potential failures and challenging themselves to rise to the occasion. Knowledge and preparation are always the key!
[In a picture: Russian Fencer Timur Safin contemplates his loss to Race Imboden at Anaheim Grand Prix – March 2018]