Competing to Train vs. Competing to Win in Fencing - Mariel Zagunis at Absolute Fencing Gear Sabre World Cup in Salt Lake City December 2019

The goal of every fencing competition is to win, right? Wrong. Not all fencing competitions are the same, and fencers should not have the same goal of winning for every fencing competition. Not in every competition you are competing to win.

 There are two types of competitions in general. 

  1. Fencing competitions where you need to perform well.
  2. Fencing competitions where you need to push your boundaries and learn.

The first type of competition is the one that we usually think about, but expanding the understanding of what it means to be competitive can boost your fencing in ways that you never thought of. 

Different kinds of fencing competitions.

Let’s talk about how we define competitions. There are very important competitions and less important competitions. The former are for winning, and the latter can be powerful places for growing. 

Less important means that these are not National Championships or other big competitions. Important competitions are things that you have worked for for a long time, sometimes a year. These are the major competitions that only happen once or twice in a year. In those kinds of competitions, you want to perform your best – whatever your best is.

Another kind of important competition are those that are qualifying competitions. Let’s say you’re a few points shy of qualifying for a national competition and the RYC/RJCC or ROC is the place that you need to qualify at. It’s a regional qualifier. Let’s say you didn’t qualify for some of the age categories like the Y14 or the Division 2 or Division 3 and you want to be able to do this through a divisional qualifier. That makes this an important competition here and you need to perform your best to qualify. 

There are also situations where you might have qualified via the regional path for the national competition and you’re going to go to the next RYC, RJCC or the next ROC, you don’t need to get any new points because you’ve already qualified. Maybe earlier than you expected to qualify and so you’ve got this extra competition now that’s not necessary for you to qualify, but you’ll have to pay lots of cancellation fees now to back out because it’s only a short time away.

You might increase your standing or get some regional trophy, but you’re no longer depending on this competition to qualify you for the national. Going to that RYC or ROC, despite already having qualified, well that’s going to be a totally different animal for you than if it was necessary for you to go to qualify for the nationals, right?

This can happen with NACs too. They come fast, one on top of the other. There are October, November, December, January, March and April NACs. Depending on geography and planning with your coach, you might plan to go to multiple of these, but they are for different reasons when they are separate for qualification.

With the exception of the Junior Olympics and April Division 1 Championship, nothing is as important for an American fencer as Fencing Summer Nationals. Those NACs might be as important as a regional event, but let’s call them less important because there are so many of them and they are not always a make or break. Even if you aren’t a national points finisher. Sure, you can improve your standings by a couple of points, but that’s something that’s about finesse.

The point is to see that these competitions are absolutely different. The reason is because the goal for them is very different. The goal of a very important competition is to win. Say you need to qualify for Nationals and so you go to a Division 2 qualifier. You need to get into the top 25%. That’s an important need, a critical moment. You need to improve your chances and you must win. Winning is the primary point here, and the end result really is the goal. 

For those that are not necessary for qualification, well the goal can be different. This distinction is very important for fencers, who will find that they can vastly improve their ability to perform. This nuance allows fencers to take their fencing in a different direction. 

Important to note that for different age and level fencers, the importance of competitions varies. While for a senior national team member the only important competition might be a World Championship or Olympic Games, and NAC’s or even Division 1 National Championship is more like calibration tournaments, for a young Y12 fencer the March NAC and Summer Nationals are the highlight of the season, and for an aspiring Cadet fencer every cadet or junior national event is equally important competition to qualify for the national team.

Competitions for growth

Let’s start with the second kind of competition, the kind of competition that is for growth. It’s important to realize that these competitions are necessarily less important. They are what makes you able to increase in your ability to perform. Maybe you were originally going to go to this competition in order to win, but now you don’t need to win quite so badly. Take advantage of this opportunity to make your fencing a whole lot better!

These competitions are the perfect opportunity to lose, and honestly any great athlete knows that you learn more from a good loss than from a win. You are not stressed about the result, so you have time to back up and think. Time to back up and try new things. Time to back up and read your opponent more, because it doesn’t matter so much if you lose. 

In these very important kinds of competitions, you need to think about your competitive edge. You can make plans for what worked for you before, then figure out what didn’t work after. Those training elements that you haven’t been able to try in competition before, well this is when you get to do them! Go over the aspects of the techniques and strategies that made sense and how your competitors responded. It’s the perfect scenario for you and your coach to work together to delve deep into tactics. Your coach will be able to fill up your mind here when you have a more calm attitude than you will in a more significant competition. 

In competitions where you are focused on winning, you will obviously take less risks because risk, by definition, is something that might not work. In training competitions, well you can take those risks. When nothing really bad will happen, well this is the perfect opportunity. You can try things that never worked before in competitions and figure out why they didn’t work. You might find out that you have some secret weapon techniques that will help you vault over your opponent in the next big competition! If you don’t try things, how will you ever know whether they will be successful?

There are often very difficult tactical decisions that must be made in a fencing competition. When the stakes are too high, you tend to go with the safe option. During a training competition, it’s advisable to always go with the unsafe option, the one that you don’t know whether it will work. Sometimes it’s not so much that a particular tactic is less likely to succeed, but instead that you have less experience with it. Here’s the place for you to gain that experience. 

Another thing to think about is your old habits and your old moves, your comfort zone. Your coach doesn’t have a chance in high stakes competitions to work on what doesn’t work, she or he has to focus on what does work. Your habits have to stay in place. Now, in these competitions, you can think about whether these habits are really serving you. Your coach can help you to challenge them. Our comfort zone is comfortable and it might work for a while, but growth comes when we push out of our comfort zone.

This is a great point as well – your coach can see that you are willing to challenge yourself in these kinds of competitions. They can see compilations of your actions, your moves. They can take a whole lot from this kind of thing. You coach will be able to see that this new thing or that new thing didn’t work because of this or that reason. The distance was wrong. You were off balance. You started the action too soon or too late. You didn’t fold, you didn’t break. You didn’t execute the action the same way as it was intended. You didn’t read the clues from your opponent.

There are many, many reasons that these things could go the way they did, but the point is that you tried something new and so they could see exactly what was missing or what was over the top. This gives you something real to work on and improve. The devil is in the details for competitive fencers, and those details are most visible when you are challenging yourself. 

When you do this, your fencing coach will know that you’re willing to get out of your comfort zone. Coaches love to see that, and they need to see it. It’s a fantastic thing. This means that the coach can introduce you to more difficult elements and that they can build your skills in a much more creative way. That gives you layers of learning, layers of strategy that will make you a well rounded fencer. 

When you work with your coach and you are in a training competition, he or she can give you a lot of information about how to win both tactically and technically. If you succeed in implementing them, then you build trust with your coach. Even if you don’t succeed in implementing them, then your coach sees that you are coachable and willing to try. Here’s where you have the chance to really listen to your coach.

If you are able to take direction during a training competition, then your coach will know that when it’s  in that critical moment when the score is 14-14 in a DE or in a final at a big competition, you’ll be able to listen to them. You’re coachable. Obviously when it’s a competition that is critical, well then you can and need to perform. It’s much more difficult to build this dialog in that moment though, because you’re under stress. In that moment, you’re going to resort to the most comfortable action, which is not pushing yourself. 

For these training competitions, don’t come in with the mindset that you must win this competition. Come into the competition with the idea that you must do your best to extend your knowledge and to grow. 

Competing to win

Yes, there are times that you just need to win. These are the adrenaline pumping, hard going, heart pounding competitions that make or break us. Think about Summer Nationals, the Junior Olympics, and the nail biting qualifiers that go into both. You have to get those touches.

Oftentimes, fencers have to do whatever they have to do here in order to win. This might mean pushing through a minor injury, pushing aside new training ideas that you and your coach have been trying out, or piling on the focus in the time surrounding the competition. Going for it is the name of the game here when competing to win, but going for it with what you know and what you know works. Big, important, win-oriented competitions are usually not the time for experimentation. They are the time for tried and true techniques. 

Most often, people are not going to criticize you for this kind of mindset and these kinds of techniques when you are competing to win. You’re there to get it done. You know it. Your opponents know it. Your coach knows it. The referees know it. Especially at the big competitions, it’s outright expected that you’ll pursue the most virulent path to victory as possible. It is important to realize that you opponents are likely doing the same thing too, and that this can lead into your own strategy, just as it could well lead into theirs. 

The tricky thing is that you cannot get here without first building a foundation on what’s come before. If you’re going to use innovation in the big competition, well you have to have tried it out somewhere before! That somewhere is in training competitions, which are the closest mimic to the adrenaline and high stakes of major competitions as you can get.