With US Fencing Summer National Championship quickly approaching, it’s a good time to remind ourselves that each and every opponent deserves our respect. With a large group of competitors, you are likely to come up against an opponent with less experience or a lower skill level, but this shouldn’t lead to cockiness. First of all, it’s good sportsmanship to treat your opponent with respect at all times. Second, you don’t want to underestimate the other fencer no matter his or her experience level, you just might get caught with your guard down!
So first, good sportsmanship. The sport of fencing is tied to honor and nobility. It may feel good in the moment to be cocky, but in the long run, this type of attitude won’t win you any friends. When you are the supposed weaker fencer, does it feel good when your opponent doesn’t take you seriously? Remember this when you are the more experienced fencer, and treat others as you would want them to treat you.
Going beyond sportsmanship, you certainly don’t want to go into a bout assuming you will win. It’s always great to go in with a positive attitude and expecting yourself to fence well and compete at a high level, but expecting and fighting to win is different than making assumptions. Respect your opponent, he or she holds a weapon and is thus a threat. In fencing, anything can happen, and you should never treat your opponent as inferior, regardless of his or her experience level.
Let’s talk through an example. In a recent fencing competition, one of our fencers went undefeated in a pool of six fencers. He won five bouts and finished with an indicator of +17. He fenced better than he ever had before. He earned a BYEin the first round of Direct Eliminations (DE), and went into his first DE bout feeling great about all of his wins and confident that he would continue to do well. He may have assumed he would take his first DE bout easily, but in fact, he lost.
Underestimating your opponents is a dangerous game to play. That’s why we so often hear great stories of big underdogs coming out on top. Sometimes when you have little to lose and everything to gain, you come out swinging. A great example comes from the 1980 Winter Olympics when the “unbeatable” Russian ice hockey team came up against the US team with a bunch of college players. The Russians underestimated the college players and the upset went down in the record books as one of the most surprising losses in the history of sports competitions and the Olympics.
Confidence is important, paying attention to the record of your opponent and allowing it to shape your expectations can be helpful, but again, here’s that word again, assuming to win or easily defeat someone will never help you win.
For the parents and coaches reading this blog, it’s also important that you don’t underestimate the opponents either! I’ve often heard a parent or coach tell a fencer that the next bout will be an easy win, pointing out the inferiority of the opponent. We certainly want to encourage confidence and morale for our fencers, but we don’t want to promote arrogance or ignorance. In other words, be aware of when motivation becomes distraction. Focus your encouragement on telling children they are going to fence well and they have trained hard for their bouts. It’s one thing to point out a specific weakness if you’re familiar with the opponent and encourage strategic bouting, but take care not to dismiss the opponent as inferior.
One way we prepare our fencers for this mentality at our competitive fencing camp is to have our youth fencers compete against seniors. Even though the bout is technically not an even match, the youngsters score points time and again. Usually the less experienced fencer gets a point in when the older fencer lets his or her guard down after getting a little too confident. When you stop taking your opponent seriously, that’s when you get caught.
So whether you’re expected to win or are up against a much more experienced fencer, always remember that anything can happen and you should fence your best and stay alert to the competition. Fence respectfully and you won’t find yourself disappointed after an upset.