You’re watching an NBA basketball game with players who are paid high salaries to help win games. They have practiced for hours upon hours since they were young boys. They have probably shot thousands of free throws and could easily hit 10 in a row in practice. But with three seconds left in a critical game and the team’s best free thrower on the line, how often do we cringe as the ball bounces off the rim?
I think most of us understand how this phenomenon occurs: nerves, pressure, over-thinking, self-doubt. The best coaches, basketball and otherwise, create drills that mimic the pressure of competition time. These coaches know that the old adage “practice makes perfect” doesn’t just apply to physical skill. You also have to practice mental focus and toughness if you expect those skills to be there come competition time.
In fact, the mental part of the game is just as important, if not more critical, when it’s time to compete. Fencing in particular is a very mental sport! In our earlier basketball example, during most of the game things are moving fast with less time to think, and you’re working as a team. In fencing, you have to start off strong, focused from the first move, touch after touch, making the mental game even more important.
In the fencing bouts that matter most, the ones with closely matched opponents that get down to the final touches or final seconds, your mental game is almost always the deciding factor. We love this quote from Dr. Alan Goldberg, an internationally recognized expert in the field of applied sports psychology:
“Think about this: Getting good as a fencer in practice is 95% physical and 5% mental. Translation: You have to work hard on your conditioning and ‘physical game’ to make it happen. However, once you face off against your opponent, the percentages flip flop. Being successful is 95% mental and 5% physical.”
So what makes a mentally tough fencer? The fencer that overtakes the higher ranked fencer in the last round of Direct Elimination with his keen focus and determination? We’re tiptoeing into the field of sports psychology, which certainly can’t be explained in a blog post, but here are a few characteristics of the mentally tough fencer.
- Stays in the moment.
- Quickly moves on from mistakes.
- Believes he/she can win.
If you get caught up in what you just did wrong or what’s going to happen in the future, you are not putting all of your energy and focus into this bout and this moment. If you beat yourself up for a mistake, you’re only making it more likely that you will make another one. Save the post-bout analysis for after the bout and keep your mind on doing your best now.
Of course reading a blog post can only help so much. As we talked about before, these skills take practice. Just like you practice your lunges and footwork and other fencing skills, you must also practice your mental skills. So what can you do?
- Don’t speak negatively about yourself in a non-constructive way in practice or elsewhere and you’ll be less likely to do it in your head during a bout. We’re all human, at some point you’ll get frustrated with yourself, but limit what you say aloud and try to refocus your thoughts.
- Give your best attention and effort when your coach introduces mental skills into your practices. If you know why it’s important, you should want to fully participate and hone your mental toughness.
The bottom line is that these skills can be learned and should be practiced just as we practice physical skills. Keep this in mind as you train and you’ll be on your way to becoming a mentally tough fencer.