Training is simply not the same as competing. The mindset that an athlete immerses themselves in during competition is nothing like the way they need to think in the day-to-day training in the sport. When you compete, you’ve got a need to focus and concentrate in a way that isn’t necessary in training. That being said, during training there is still a need to have another kind of focus, but one that is more malleable and less intense.
The difference in how athletes must think during training versus on the day of competition is a subject that has been widely studied by psychologists, including those who work for the International Olympic Committee. Learning to manage the anxiety that comes on the day of competition is a major hurdle to overcome.
Kirsten Diffenbach, Ph.D. is a sports psychologist who works the the U.S. Olympic Committee. In an interview “Train Your Brain like an Olympian” about how athletes can train their brains effectively for competition, she said “On any given day, water is still wet, the track is still there, and gravity still works the same way. It’s not like you’re going to get to an Ironman and there will be some extra element, like they added sharks to the water.” Your opponent is not going to suddenly pull out a lightsaber and cut you off at the knees! Rather, they’re going to do some variation of what your training partners have been doing with you on the strip at your club during practice. Pulling back the nerves and trusting that your training brain has served you well enough will console your competition brain should it start to run away with you.
The thing is that you as a fencer are naturally equipped to perform these tasks to a great ability. The more you learn about how your mind takes over, the easier this will be. In fact, it is not necessarily the physical prowess that makes a sports champion, but rather it is mental prowess that most affects an fencer’s ability to perform well. Learning to check into the competition brain in the right way is a critical part of reaching the upper echelon of competition in any sport in general, and in fencing in particular.
During training, the mind allows for mistakes to let the fencer learn. Poor skill execution, fatigue, emotional distress, inaccuracy, and other instances of less than stellar performance during training are acceptable. A private lesson allows for interruption of the action. A fencing class allows for pauses. An open fencing night allows for lost points and lost matches. All of these instances give the fencer the chance to mess up with few meaningful consequences, and the brain accounts for that as learning experiences.
It can be easy for fencers, especially young fencers, to just go through the motions during training. They can check out of what they’re doing, you know with that glassy, glossy eyed look on their faces. Coaches know it, and parents definitely know it. Hold up the sword, drop down the mask, and think about the fun thing you want to do after practice. This isn’t the kind of focused training mentality that we’re talking about. When a fencer is in the zone of training, they’re actively engaged in what they’re doing. They are making mental connections, assessing the situations that they are presented with and taking time to ask questions. The pace often is slower than in competition and so the mind has ample time to hunt down solutions.
Taking into account how the fencer trains not only the body but the mind has to be a part of the equation. More hours in the fencing club will not bring the results that you’re looking for if you don’t do it smartly and wholeheartedly. Every moment of training is an important moment, so dropping into that training mindset that is open to new possibilities, focused, determined and yet flexible is a must do for fencers! It can start with a transition from one activity to another, and it can mean taking some other activities out in order to clear mental space for fencing training.
Routine is an important part of taking advantage of your training brain, and laying a positive pathway to getting the most out of your competition brain. Make your training automatic as much as possible, recreating the competitive experience so that you have the most potential to switch back and forth, turning that competitive switch on and off. Which is what we want to see our fencers do! Elite fencers learn to mentally drop in for their training, then activate their competitive mind when necessary as well.
Competition is a completely different experience. Suddenly the stakes are much bigger. A lost point could mean a lost bout, and a lost bout could mean elimination from the tournament. That pressure becomes more and more intense the further a fencer progresses through a competition structure, moving to the regional, then national, and finally international level. Getting in the “zone” of focus and intuitive performance can be a massive undertaking for novice fencers.
A surprising side effect of competition is that it is exhausting. Our mental stress has a way of eating up the energy much faster than we tend to give it credit for. That’s because our brains and our bodies are so very integrated! When you become stressed (keeping in mind that there is both good stress and bad stress), your brain sends out stress hormones like cortisol, which flood your muscles and cause tension. Stress is physically exhausting. That’s a big reason that competition is so tiring. Any experienced competitive fencer will tell you that you have to train for long hours to perform well in a short competition. Stamina is a big factor, and it leads right back to the brain!
Performing well during competition is a skill, a learned skill. It’s fundamentally different than learning the mechanics of the sport itself. Well performing fencers need to be able to perform well not just in the comfortable and familiar environment of the club, but also in the environments outside the club that are unfamiliar and oftentimes daunting. Just as with any other skill, it can only be mastered over time. There are no quick fixes here, no shortcuts. More competition means being better at facing the issues that arise for competitors.
Here are five challenges that can only be overcome through repeated exposure to competition.
- Constant pressure.
- Peer/mentor/community expectations.
- Changing stimuli.
The stress of competition, the fear of losing and the thrill of success never go away, but what does soften are the nerves that you experience. Just as is the case with anything, practice makes perfect! The more you work on your form for that fencing action, going over and over it with your fencing coach, the better your technique becomes. And as fencers know that there is no way to get around doing that work, you just have to do it. A hundred times. Two hundred times. A thousand times. The same principle extends to competitions. You simply have to do it, over and over and over again, until the good fencing competition methods become habits that you cannot help but do.
For parents, this means encouraging your young fencers to compete as often as they can and their coach recommends. If you are yourself a fencer, this means pushing yourself to compete as often as you can. Local competitions, regional competitions, national competitions. Exposure works.
There’s never a time when competition brain and training brain become one and the same. What does happen is that competition brain becomes more familiar and thus easier to drop into. Competitors become better able to get into “the zone” at will when the time comes and thus to perform better and progress further in competition.