Art of Fencing, Art of Life

How Fencers Can Learn to Accept Constructive Criticism

constructive criticism in fencingOur ability to learn and grow is fundamentally tied to our ability to handle criticism effectively. Some people seem to be naturally born with this trait, while others seem to fundamentally struggle, even when the criticism is entirely accurate.

For fencers, learning to take suggestions for improvement from fencing coaches, instructors, peers, and even fencing referees is a massive opportunity for improvement. How can you get better at fencing if you think you already know everything? The answer is that you can’t, at least not as quickly as you would be able to if you took their advice.

What happens when we get critiqued

The moment many of us hear those words of critique, our bodies and minds leap into action. The heart begins to race. The mind begins to run in search of a reason. The emotions get out of control and we feel angry at this person. The ego becomes instantly bruised.

Many of us react with anger or defensiveness the moment someone comes to us with something that we’re not doing right. It’s a natural response! Nothing to be ashamed of, but also something that holds us back infinitely. Instead of learning from what they’re offering us, we rationalize our actions and try to think our way around them.  

When that fencing coach says something like “You lost this DE bout because you were not holding your form correctly,” particularly to a fencer with experience, it can feel like an attack. You’ve been doing this for a long time and you know your stuff right? How could you possibly be doing it wrong after all this time?

Even a small critique can feel like a full on assault.

Learning how to calmly handle constructive criticism in fencing will not only allow fencers to grow in the sport, but it’s also one of those skills that transfers to other parts of life. In the classroom, a student learns information better when they understand that they don’t know everything already.  In a career, a boss is much more likely to approve of an employee who learns from their mistakes than one who gets angry at others when they mess up. Even in a personal relationship partners are much happier when they can grow from their mistakes. Fencing can offer a wonderful arena to learn this skill!

Eight steps for fencers to handle constructive criticism

How do you learn how to pull down the defenses and learn from mistakes in fencing instead of getting angry about them? Here are eight ways to make it happen.

1. Halt your instincts

When a fencing coach or peer offers that first sign of criticism, stop. Don’t do anything.

The first instinct is often to leap to the defensive, and this instinct will ruin you. It’s that first jolt, that one second as the words are coming out of their mouth that is the most important. It might seem like that kind of time isn’t a big deal, but it is! Stopping that first reaction to give your brain time to process and take control is critical.

Fencing is already a sport of passion. Add onto that the heightened emotional state that we tend to be in at a tournament and it’s doubly so. Don’t let your emotions run off with you before you get a chance to hear what’s being said. Moreover, think how would you react to the same words if your coach said them during your private lesson. They would sound like a suggestion and not critique, right?

2. Control your body

If you’re a fencer who doesn’t take criticism well naturally, then you’re likely going to make a face when you get criticized, almost immediately. This will send the message to your coach or the referee that you’re going to react badly, and they will automatically hold back. That’s no good for you!

Once you’ve halted your instincts, the next second is you controlling your body. Relax your face, relax your muscles, uncross your arms. Don’t let that quip cross your lips, or even form in your mouth.  Remind yourself to stay calm by changing how you hold your body.

3. Think about the benefits

The next step is to remind yourself of why this criticism is good for you. You’ll improve your fencing, reach your goals, become a better athlete. What are your goals as a fencer? Think about how you can take what this person is saying to you and use it to get where you want to go.

4. Take the person out of it

Many fencers have an easy time taking constructive criticism from their coach, but when a peer or a referee offers them some advice to improve they can’t handle it.

While it’s definitely challenging to hear how you could be doing things better on the strip from someone who you don’t respect as much as your coach, that doesn’t mean you should throw out what their saying. It certainly doesn’t mean you should show any disrespect towards them. Accurate feedback on your fencing can come from anywhere, even the parent of another fencer or a fencer who has less experience than you do.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to necessarily do whatever it is this person says. Perhaps what they’re saying won’t work for you at all or is simply bad advice. But if you automatically throw it out then you’ll never know. Fencers should always think about it, talk to your fencing coach about it, and take criticism with grace.

5. Listen to understand

Now that you’ve curtailed that first flush of reaction, it’s time to activate your listening abilities. Engage in thoughtful, productive dialogue with the person you’re talking to about your fencing. Being combative is never helpful! Save the combat for the piste.

When the person has said whatever they think you could do to improve your fencing, repeat it back to them in your own words. “I think you’re telling me that I should change my attack timing in order to avoid being hit with a counter attack? Is that right?” This is especially true when you’re first learning to take constructive criticism as you want to master the art of turning on your brain when your emotions run out of control.

The point here is not to analyze what they’re telling you, just to simply and dispassionately understand what they’re saying. Give them the benefit of the doubt! It’s often difficult for someone to give feedback.

6. Thank them

No matter how good or bad the constructive criticism is, always always look the person in the eye and offer sincere thanks for their help. They didn’t have to step in to help you, and it’s a sign that they want to be there for you. Even if the advice is misguided or incorrect, you will never go wrong by thanking someone. “I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about this technique with me. Thank you!”

Fencing is a sport rooted in chivalry. While you certainly don’t have to take their advice, you can always appreciate the effort that someone is putting into helping you improve.

7. Become active

If, when you rationally and logically deconstruct this advice, you feel that you need some clarity then ask for it! Following up with questions shows that you’re really listening and is a wonderful way to grow. “So you mean I should adjust my grip like this? Why do you say that?” or “I was frustrated in that bout, I usually do a better job of staying focused. Do you have any advice on that?”

Asking questions to deconstruct the feedback will get down to the root of the thing. Don’t get into debating, but always look for solutions.

8. Figure out if it’s a one time thing

Oftentimes in fencing we have momentary lapses of technique or form. They aren’t common, and so they might not need to be addressed in a deep way. This is where you can dig deeper with your coach. Someone who doesn’t watch you fence often – say a referee at a tournament – might offer you a piece of advice that you hadn’t heard before. Go to your coach with this information to see whether it’s a thing that happens often or even if it’s something you need to look at.

Constructive criticism can be the only way to learn about the weaknesses that we possess in fencing. Without someone telling us that we’re doing something wrong in our fencing, how could we ever grow?

If you approach every instance of criticism as an opportunity to become a better fencer instead of being defensive then you’ll actually become a better fencer! While it’s not an easy thing to do, this is a skill that every fencer should learn to master. It’s easily as important as learning a proper stance or effective targeting!


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1 Comment

  1. R

    9. Implement the critique/advice. A fencer, now in college, after I routinely beat him at practice would ask what he needed to do, but wouldn’t change/do anything. Finally I told him “I can’t help you.”

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