The goal of fencing is to stab someone else with a sharp metal object. Our sport grew out of war and actual duels to the death, so it’s natural to assume that there is some danger involved and one of the opponents would die. How could there not be?
In the movies, sword fights often end with one person thrusting their opponent through the chest with a blade, a red trickle running from beneath the metal while the unlucky loser crumples to the ground and whispers a few words in hushed tones. It’s all incredibly dramatic when it plays out onscreen, and the tableau of that tragic death is so familiar that it’s almost comforting. The movies are not the real world, thankfully.
We do all enjoy the thrill of the sport that is inherent in holding a weapon towards another human being with a weapon and seeing who can best the other person. That adrenaline rush is a big draw for everyone, and there is a bracing sense of excitement.
Fencing can be infuriating. The frustration of things not going your way, even when you are working hard to do everything the right way, can be overwhelming for fencers at times. It’s the reason you see fencers get angry and throw their sword or yell at the referee. It’s the reason you see fencers clench their fists and it can be the reason fencers yell on the strip. All that balled-up emotion that gets pushed down deep.
One of the unfortunate realities of fencing is that you can do everything right and STILL get hit. That is, you can select a good action and execute it with the right distance and timing, but if your opponent guesses correctly, you can still lose the touch!
How can a fencer possibly combat this reality?
The metaphor of a beast in the case of frustration is a fitting one. But what if it didn’t have to be a beast? What if you could work with frustration to help your fencing get better? If this can happen, then frustration can transform from a beast to an ally.
It can feel like the last year has been nothing more than one long and impossible series of choices that are gut wrenching for us to make, yet they have to be made. Gratitude is not an easy sentiment to come by as the months drag on and on, especially when we realize that pandemic lockdowns are only going to get worse in the coming months.
I miss fencing competitions.
I miss the sound of swords clashing.
I miss hugging my family.
I miss the feel of getting on an airplane.
I miss my opponents.
I miss movie theaters.
I miss handshakes from my coach.
I miss sitting over dinner with my friends.
I miss yells on the piste.
I miss not having to think about coronavirus all the time.
I miss feeling confident in the future.
Before this pandemic lockdown, we knew what was what. We planned for fencing competitions years in advance at times. We knew that Fencing Summer Nationals would happen every summer and that every four years we could count on the Olympics to give us a fresh infusion of inspiration and determination. High school seniors knew that they would go off to live in a dorm in the fall. Middle school fencers knew they would come to the club after school and practice. You could count on these things, just the same as the seasons turning or the sun rising in the morning.
It is very much as though the sun isn’t rising the way it’s supposed to.
There’s no reason to deny the struggle that this time is. We can put a shine over it, try to dig harder to make it through, but that wears on us. It is wearing on us. The well of sunshine that we project is not endless, and it does no good to try to pretend it is. We are worried about our future, and also about our present. That makes our light dimmer, though it doesn’t put it out.
Sometimes, I think we should allow it to be dim. It’s recharging, and most of all it’s honest. The toll that this long lockdown has taken on small businesses, including fencing clubs, is real and it is wearying. Will fencing still be here when everything reopens? Once the vaccine does come, and it will come, what will be left? Once lockdown is not our everyday life, can our everyday life be what it was before? The truth is that life will not be the same as it was before.
These months have been demoralizing in many ways, for many different people and for a whole lot of different reasons. It activated a part of our brains that is focused on survival, something that most of us have not had to think about before. We are pushed to give more than we ever have before, and sometimes we don’t even know how to give it.
Sleep is not just about spending time in bed under the covers. Sleep restores the body, and the mind too. Without enough sleep, athletes can’t function at their best. It’s as critical as eating well or exercising for a healthy body, yet sleep doesn’t often get the importance that it deserves in our understanding of performance.
It’s often thought that we can cut sleep short. If there’s a big school assignment, a late night practice, or even just a restless evening, sleep is the first thing to go for many of us. We can do without that extra hour right? Especially in the age of electronics, sleep can get cut short in favor of a myriad of things.
For athletes, this is a big factor. Top performers know how much sleep they need, and they make sure to balance it. Whether you are aiming for the Olympics or simply want to be your best fencing in the club, sleep is a key ingredient.
Another illness is on the horizon for the winter months – influenza. Though we are living in a brave new world of disease prevention awareness, we are still facing down the same yearly flu season that we have in the past. Flu is something that we should be thinking about too.
It’s so simple to spread illnesses without realizing it, because as we know now you can be a carrier without showing symptoms yourself. That goes for both the flu and of course for COVID. You can take preventative steps to keep the flu from spreading, because we don’t want to strain our healthcare system any more than it is. This is a real concern for all of us in the next few months.
Sport and illness
We know that exercise builds the immune system, and that’s a wonderful thing. There is a compelling case to be made for how exercise gives our bodies a defense against potential illness. There are a huge variety of ways that physical activity boosts the immune system. We are better able to ward off all kinds of germs when we’re participating in healthy exercises. One of the things you can do to support yourself this winter, through flu season, is to stay active!
Fencing, especially when we are training intensely, is cardio exercise. When it’s done regularly, it’s part of a long term strategy to stay healthy. Lack of exercise is directly tied to the onset of chronic illnesses, and chronic illnesses are directly tied to vulnerability to things like the flu. We aren’t experts of course, but the science is clear on this. Regular exercise can be part of our defense against illness. A fun part!
It’s not that simple though. Participating regularly in fencing is wonderful for your body, but it’s not a cure all. Staying active will help, but that doesn’t mean that you are safe and can cut corners in other areas. Find your groove with your precautions and stick with them.
Let me preface this next information with this – the average fencer training at a local club is not an elite athlete. It is interesting to note that we know that there is a window of increased vulnerability following strenuous exercise. This is something that is still being studied, but there are scientific studies on marathon runners in particular. In the long run, these athletes have a higher resistance to illness, but in the short term they have a small period where they need to be extra vigilant. For the average fencer, this is not a factor. Moderate exercise a few times a week doesn’t have negative immune effects. Still, it’s interesting information that might be important for those fencers who do go on to become elite!