How much are you aware of what is around you when you are fencing? So often, fencers are pinpointed focused on the preparation that they bring to the strip and on the singular goal of getting the point. Though we do emphasize the importance of both preparation and intense action in this sport, there is also a point at which we lose out on the opportunities that are around us in service of that preparation and intensity.
The mental reality of fencing is incredibly important. In fact, it’s arguably more important than the physical reality. Our sport is not one of strength or agility so much as it is one of focus and control of the mind. How we control that mind power is the real question, and fencers can benefit from challenging their assumptions about what control means and how to direct the control that we have.
Practice and preparation
There is a natural inclination for athletes to prepare for any eventuality. We train for tall opponents and short opponents. We train for quick parries and long lunges. Coaches drill us again and again so that our bodies react without our thoughts having to direct them so intentionally, letting us meet our opponent’s strike with a quickness that is almost inhuman.
Fencers find real value in this. It’s an ongoing part of our training, but as fencers rise to become more and more masterful of their bodies, they have the opportunity to think differently in their minds. The years of hard work in the fencing club are important because they create automaticity and a baseline physicality. This is also why continued cross training can support mental development – the fencer can be less concerned with bodily functionality and more concerned with strategy. It becomes less about whether I can do a movement, but rather it becomes a question of whether this movement is the most appropriate.
With all of this practice and preparation, fencers can become blocked off from the reality of their opponent. The bottom line is that no fencer can totally prepare for an opponent because the opponent is always going to do something surprising. Elite fencers watch video of their upcoming opponents again and again to prepare for what’s coming in a high stakes match, but they can never know what that opponent is going to actually bring to the strip on the day that they meet. It could be in the same pattern that they have seen on the tapes, or it could be something different and new. It’s impossible to know by looking at past performances. Though we can project, no one knows how another person will behave in a given situation.
It’s also worth noting that practice and preparation build on one another over time. We aren’t just talking about the practice that a fencer does in this year or this season, but rather all of the practice and preparation combined that bring them to this point. Drawing the notion of practice and preparation out to have a wider view allows fencers to see just how much depth they bring to each and every match. Just think about that – your fencing is an amalgamation of all of the tournaments, classes, private lessons, and home practice that you’ve ever done! That’s a whole lot of preparation that increases exponentially year over year. All of that comes to bear in a given match, for good and for ill.
Opening possibility through observation
“Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind.” – Louis Pasteur
Though there is a tendency for fencers to point their efforts on the last section of this quote in order to account for variability in their opponents, it’s not the best way. That kind of rigorous preparation has a necessarily rigid quality to it.
Here we think of old school style fencing training where the coach would loudly tell the students “Do it again! This time with more focus!” as they proceeded to lunge or riposte over and over again. Whenever the student thinks that they are done with the training, the coach turns around and instructs them to do it another ten times or another twenty times.
Work the hardest.
Certainly, this kind of training has its benefits. Rigorous and disciplined fencing training is a solid methodology for improving your ability to win matches and to progress to the highest levels. It also allows fencers to develop personally, improving their lives holistically while they work to master specific techniques. It cannot be the only dimension in effective fencing training however.
When a fencer is on the strip, they must be observing closely and constantly in order to be responsive and effective. This is something we’ve seen grow in practice for the top world fencers in the last few decades as fencing styles have morphed from more rigid and traditional to more lithe and flexible.
This can come in all kinds of forms, and observation of the opponent doesn’t begin when the masks are on and the buzzer sounds. How is the opponent carrying themselves before the match? Are they dragging their feet or bouncing around the venue with lots of excitement? You can also draw on that preparation if you have watched the previous matches of your opponent to give you a feel for how they might be different or similar today. If a fencer is normally energetic and quick with their movements, but you observe that today they are sluggish and slow moving prior to the match, then you can respond accordingly from the first tick of the clock.
There is that saying “Work smarter, not harder”, and it’s true in fencing. We do best and are most successful when we work both smart and hard, but too often the emphasis is placed on the latter.
The skill of focused engagement
There is no amount of preparing for a match that will make up for focused engagement during the match. The fencer who is the most present at any given time is the one who will get the point – no question. We could even go so far as to say that all of that preparation is useless if we as fencers are not able to pull ourselves into the moment and engage in a focused manner during the match.
The question now becomes how can a fencer develop the skill of focused engagement? There are ways to prepare the mind to be an effective observer. Here are four ways to make that happen.
- Identify what you need to focus on. This is a huge aspect of developing observational skills. In a fencing bout, there are dozens of possible things that you might be able to point your focus in the direction of. Is it the footwork of the opponent? Their blade? Perhaps it’s their timing or their rhythm. It might not even be the opponent. Sometimes the most effective way to turn your attention is on yourself.
- Aim for what you can control. No matter how well you prepare or observe, you cannot ever control your opponent. The only thing any of us can control is ourselves. Putting emphasis on the outcome of a given exchange is not going to help you to achieve your goal. Instead, observe your opponent in the context of your interaction with them. Where are you able to observe potential opportunities or potential problems? The only thing that will come out of trying to control your opponent’s actions is frustration and anxiety for you.
- Use your inner monologue. Each of us has an inner monologue that runs through our heads as we are fencing. Learning to observe your own self talk and then to change it to help you is a huge way to positively impact your fencing. One way to help yourself become a more adept fencing observer is to repeat phrases to yourself as you are practicing or competing. “Relax and watch”, “Look at their feet”, and “Let go” are a few examples. You have the power to direct your observational skills in whatever direction you need them to go. This also goes back to knowing what you need to focus on.
- Practice effective preparation. This is where that quote from Pasteur comes to. Both preparation and observation are important for fencers, and one can stream out from the other. Routine is one of the ways that we teach ourselves to focus in a given direction. We are constantly challenged with new input, and so we need to maintain as much discipline in the areas that we can control as possible so that we can most easily respond when something enters the field of play that we aren’t expecting. Being consistent with your warmup routine, your cross training, and your eating habits across all of your fencing experience will help free you to observe and respond during competition.
The more we can respond and adapt to our opponent, the more we can effectively work towards our goals. Fencers need to have a prepared mind AND to observe our opponents constantly and consistently in the moment we are fencing against them.