As fencers, we practice practice practice. More time on the strip – be it in class, in camp, taking lessons, or going to open fencing events, is what fencers are always chasing. The goal is for our fencing to become second nature, for it to be something that we don’t even think about anymore, we just do it.
Something that it’s not uncommon to hear is that fencers find themselves performing better in practice than they do in competition. They might be killing it on the strip when they’re at the club, but once they hit the road and go to compete, they underperform. Why is this? And what can fencers do to help stop this process?
Why fencers underperform in competition
Having all of the practice time and talent in the world doesn’t feel like enough if a fencer can’t access it when they need it in competition. While fencing isn’t about the amount of medals a fencer wins or the number of times they make it to the podium, it is about growing and getting better. A major part of that progress is shown in competition. It’s exceedingly frustrating to miss the mark that you’ve put so much effort into reaching.
There are a few reasons that performing in competition isn’t the same as performing in the club.
- Lots of chances – In practice, fencers have the perception that there are lots of chances to get it right. If you lose this match, you can always just fence again. In competition it doesn’t feel that way (though arguably it’s much the same in competition – one loss is rarely going to be a huge blow in the bigger picture). Nonetheless, there’s this intuitive feeling that there are unlimited chances on the strip for fencers in the club, where it can feel like every point in competition is do or die.
- Outcome focused – During fencing competitions, fencers can easily fall into the trap of being focused on the outcome, which is actually a distraction from what the real focus needs to be – technique, form, mental agility, etc. During practice, fencers are focused on those things like technique, form, mental agility, etc. , leading them to perform well. During competition, it can be hard not to think about the points on the scoresheet and the standings. If you’re worried about scoring points on the strip, it’s actually harder to score them!
- Distraction – Fencing competitions can be distracting. You’re in a new space with new people, different sounds, different lighting, different strip, etc. etc. Those kinds of distractions can keep fencers from doing their best. At the home club, a fencer is familiar with everything.
- Negative self-talk – One of the biggest things that we see happen to fencer in competition is that they get into a cycle of negative self talk. One bad experience, one bad touch, one bad call can lead to more bad experiences. It’s just how our minds work. One bad performance can breed more bad performances if a fencer isn’t careful.
- Fear of competitors – At a large fencing competition, fencers are facing people who they’ve never met before. At the club, fencers know who they’re fighting against. Intimidation is a major factor when fencers underperform. This is why adaptability is so important! Fencers have to learn to be adaptable on the strip in order to perform well and not be intimidated by fencers who are unfamiliar.
- Stress takeover – Fencing competitions are simply stressful! It’s so important that fencers learn to combat the physical and psychological effects of stress during competition. The rush of adrenaline that happens when we compete is part of what makes it all exciting, and it can even sharpen our minds to perform well. The trouble comes when stress gets out of control and a fencer gets trapped in fight-flight-freeze, preventing them from performing to their full ability.
- Racing mind – During practice at the club, clarity and focus are easier than they are in competition. When it’s time to step onto the strip to face an opponent in a fencing competition, it’s not uncommon for a fencer’s mind to race wildly. A chasing, racing mind prevents the fencer from being able to perform well!
Every fencer is unique, and every fencer who struggles with performance is going to be driven by something slightly different. However these are the major things that impact fencers when they compete.
What to do about fencing competition underperformance
Now that we have established some of the things that go into underperforming at fencing competitions, it’s time to address some of the things that fencers can do to combat fencing competition underperformance.
Effective training is the only way to improve fencing performance. Not all training is the same, and your fencing coach will be able to guide a fencer as to what to do to perform more effectively! However here are some ideas that will help.
- Have technical goals. Practice isn’t just practice, it’s got to be specific! A fencer might focus on a specific foot placement, a targeted tempo or an improvement in hand position. The more specific, the better. Keep in mind that the more automatic a fencer can make their fencing, the better it will translate to competition.
- Train your thinking. Mental training goals are absolutely as important as physical training goals. A fencer might work on visualizing the touch, letting go of all outside distractions. This is helpful for fencers who have trouble performing well on competition day as well as those who don’t. There are many techniques to help with focus, and it’s not something that just happens naturally for all fencers. Just as you train your physical body, train your mind!
- Focus on breath. Breathing is incredibly powerful for fencers. Proper breath technique can dramatically improve focus and remove stress. There are physiological things that happen when a fencer breathes properly, including lowering those stress hormones that can send the brain into overdrive. Deep breathing and focus go hand in hand, and proper breath is a real and tangible way for fencers to overcome nerves.
- Improve your self-talk. What are you saying to yourself on competition day? One good way to do this is to look back at a time when you did perform well in fencing competition and then replicate that. Another method is exactly the opposite – take what you said to yourself on a bad day and say the exact opposite. What you say to yourself is a central pillar of good fencing performance.
- Check in right before you start fencing. Identify the things that are most important for you to fence well, then create a little speech to go over in your mind before you step onto the strip in competition. It might go something like “Think about my feet, eye on their foil, control the distance, repost with disengage, you’ve got this!” A long list won’t help you, but going over the top line of things you need to focus on (talk to your coach to help you with this!) can totally transform your fencing performance. Say this personalized motivational phrase over and over again in your mind as you approach the strip.
- Put fencing competition into perspective. Even if you’ve got big goals of going to Summer Nationals or qualifying for the Junior Olympics this season, in reality one loss likely isn’t going to break those chances! This fencing competition thing is all about your growth, and every single competitive fencing match will make you grow. In the wider scope of your life, you will face tougher things than this fencing competition. This can really help to decrease anxiety on fencing competition day! A note to parents here: The younger the fencer, the tougher this step is. They need your encouragement to strike a balance between putting fencing competition into perspective and recognizing what a big deal this is to them.
- Behave well on competition day. Whatever you’re doing at home, that’s what you should be doing on competition day. Regularity matters! Don’t eat a big stack of waffles at the hotel on competition day if you normally eat oatmeal at home. Don’t spend all day watching your teammates compete if you’d normally spend the day focused at school or work. How you carry yourself and the things you decide to do on competition day will be the deciding factors in how a fencer performs.
Competition is definitely different than practice at the club. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t fence at your best on competition day! This is not an issue that should keep you from competing and succeeding. Quite the contrary! If you’re a fencer who does well in practice but struggles when the fencing referees are there and it seems like everything is on the line, it’s all about your mentality. And guess what? That’s something you have the power to change.