Oftentimes we find that fencers fence fantastically when they are up against very strong opponents, but then when they come up against less advanced fencers they come up short. This is especially true with novice fencers. Why is that?
Rise to the occasion
We’ve all heard the cliché that people “rise to the occasion” when they’re faced with a problem that’s seemingly insurmountable. This is a terminology that’s most commonly associated with war or hardship, when people do extraordinary things in response to very tough circumstances. A soldier might show superhuman strength during a battle to save his comrade, or a doctor might stay up for long hours to operate on patients in the middle of a crisis.
Ordinary people can find themselves in situations where they do extraordinary things. I recently read news about women who spent five months lost at sea with their two dogs. These were average people who showed extraordinary stamina and grit when they were presented with a life or death situation! And there are so many stories like that that we hear every day! In fencing, we see a much less dramatic version of that, but it’s the same principle.
A challenging situation either intimidates us or inspires us. It’s all psychological – none of this has to do with physical prowess, training, or even skill necessarily. Fencing is a mental game at its heart, and this notion of fencing better against a formidable opponent is a beautiful illustration of that principle. It can be much easier to fence against a very challenging opponent than it is to fence against an opponent who is less challenging. Fencers rise to the occasion!
Why better fencers can be easier to fence
There are so many reasons that fencing a more skilled opponent is easier than fencing a less skilled opponent.
Underestimation of threat
The first big reason that fencers don’t do well against seemingly easier opponents is that they simply underestimate the challenge that they’re facing. They come into the bout with preconceived notions about how simple it’s going to be to win it, only to get onto the strip without the proper amount of focus and determination and ultimately to lose.
Beginner’s unpredictable actions
Novice fencers are much more unpredictable than experienced fencers. Their actions on the strip aren’t as fluid or as rhythmic as those of fencers who have been at this for a while. Of course their skill is also not as good as it will be later, meaning that a more experienced fencer should be able to take them on. If the more skilled fencer doesn’t stay focused and attentive during the match, she or he will more easily get caught off-guard by those erratic movements.
Natural level adjustment
It’s also just natural to adjust our level of fencing to meet that of our opponent. It goes back to that notion of rising to the occasion. With a lower level fencer, you might slow down and telegraph your movements because you’re naturally syncing up with your opponent. Without even thinking about it! With a more advanced fencer on the other hand, a fencer might move more quickly and with a higher level of control.
I compare this with language. How many times have you adjusted your level of language based on the person that you’re talking to? If you talk to an immigrant who has only basic language skills, then you’re naturally going to slow your speech down and use less complex words. It’s not something that you consciously do, it’s just something that happens on its own. This is the same thing that happens in fencing! You don’t even realize that you’re doing it.
Fencers who are going against opponents who are much better than they are tend to have something to prove. The idea is that “if I can beat this really amazing fencer then I’ll prove how great I am”. The stakes are simply higher when you’re facing off against a fencer who is much more skilled or experienced. Pride is a factor that doesn’t go unnoticed. The stakes aren’t as high when you’re fencing someone who is at or below your level of prowess.
Fence for yourself
It doesn’t matter who you’re fencing, it’s always important for fencers to hone their skills and give their best in every bout. A good fencer will always consciously work to fence their opponents in a way that’s reflective of their skill level. While it’s of course wonderful to scale your skills up, you should be careful never to allow your skill to wane on the strip because you’re facing a fencer who isn’t as skilled or experienced.
Assumptions are some of the most dangerous things that fencers can bring with them onto the strip, and many of those assumptions live themselves out without our conscious knowledge. It’s very easy to get lazy about our fencing, not to follow our own path but to just meet our opponent wherever they’re at. Don’t do it! Give yourself the best possible chance to win in your match by consciously pushing your skills to be better, no matter the level of your opponent.
You can always talk to your fencing coach about how you can practice working on your fencing against people of different skill levels. Your coach will be able to help guide you in the right direction so that you can learn how you fence against different kinds of opponents and how to meet them at their level and push past your own hurdles. You should be fencing a wide variety of opponents that are of the kind you might see in competition. Keep working on your focus and determination, no matter what level you opponent might be at!
As with anything, the best way to fix a problem with your fencing is first to admit that you have somewhere to improve from. The more focused and ready you are for your opponents of any level, the more successful you will be.
Have you ever caught yourself fencing with less drive against a less skilled opponent? What was your coping mechanism for changing your mindset? Tell us in the comments!
When practicing with beginners, it’s also natural to adjust my fencing “down” so I don’t “beat them up”, which wouldn’t improve them or me. Unfortunately, this may translate to tournament bouts.