We talk a lot about the mental game of fencing, how it takes adaptability and focus to be successful. One of the most adaptable and focused fencers we’ve had the joy of talking to is Yuval Freilich.
This young and hungry epee fencer represents Israel on the world stage, and he is doing it with a thoughtful nature that does not match his youthful age. At only twenty-five years old, Yuval has a long career ahead of him. Last year, he made a major mark on epee fencing when he took the Gold medal home from the European Championships. This was the first time an Israeli fencer has taken home the top prize at this level of competition.
What you’ll see here is a fencer who sees the varied dimensions of the sport, and one who has made surprising and difficult decisions to compete in it. We were delighted by his ability to articulate the nuance of epee fencing and of how he overcame the challenges that could have become roadblocks to his success. The tactical and technical insight he gives here, including for fencers who are shorter than their opponents, well it’s worth reading.
Don’t expect this genuine and heartfelt interview to be the last you hear from Yuval Freilich, this remarkable epee fencer.
Interview with Yuval Freilich
Igor: Thank you for your time Yuval. You are very young, but you’ve had a very eventful life. Israeli athletes are fascinating to me because they succeed against all odds in my opinion.
There is a big gap from being a successful Junior, like you had been, to becoming a successful Senior. How would you describe this transition for you?
Yuval Freilich: I think it’s something about epee specifically. There are so many options in the sport. It really is like chess. There’s an endless dynamic to the bout. One of the difficulties in jumping from Junior to Senior is knowing how to react in each situation because of all the options and make the right decision at the right time, whereas in Cadets and Juniors, each fencer has a pretty basic set of tools that you can bank on. You can say, there’s this fencer and he has this set of tools. At the Senior level, there is so much more variety, there are so many different styles. Mistakes and weaknesses on the Senior level are taken advantage of a lot more often.
Fencing in Israel
In Israel, I don’t think we’re as organized to make that jump from the Junior level to the Senior level as other countries. Take France for example. You have the incentive, you’ve got young fencers who train in the National Olympic Center and there is no stopping their progress. They have the Senior levels and they have a tradition and there’s generation after generation of fencers and they come one right after the other.
In Israel, we have the military and we have to do three years of compulsory military service, which usually slows down an athlete’s progress because it limits the athletes time considerably and takes a mental and energetic toll. The military in Israel is pretty limiting for athletes. Also, I think that it’s a real issue of tradition. Sports in Israel, isn’t really a traditional thing. It’s not a cultural thing. You spoke about Israeli’s succeeding against all odds, and I think it’s because of that. It’s because it doesn’t have the culture and tradition of sports, of winning, of competing at the highest levels. Sport in Israel doesn’t get as much respect as it does in other countries. It’s a mental glass ceiling that says, “Nobody has succeeded before me. I have to do it alone. No one has promised me that I can succeed, I’m in unchartered territory.”
IG – Where is the road ahead of you? If you want, you have fifteen years ahead of you doing professional sport and competing with people who have a lot of support behind them. Hungarians, the French, the Italians, the Russians. They all have big military or police organizations that finance the sport and give them the means, the salaries. So what is your plan?
YF – First of all for me, I think it’s important to say that I do get financial support from the state based on results. I get a monthly scholarship. Everything I need is covered by the state. I am also sponsored by the PBT [Hungarian Fencing Equipment and Gear Manufacturer]. I don’t know how you can fence full time without financial support. But me and other elite athletes which are on the Olympic team or could potentially get to the Olympics, we get support on many different levels.
I think the most important thing in Israel is building a system like in Russia or France or Italy, where sport has real importance in society. Where there is a system of backing by the government and tradition and people understand that sport is a very important part of culture.
Yuval Freilich: “It has to be my responsibility”
I think in Israel we’re not there yet. I need to make that myself. I need to make sure that I can create that surrounding. At the moment, I can say I have what I need. The proof is last years’ European championship. The only question is about consistency and the ability to improve and fence at the highest levels. It has to be my responsibility, I can’t leave it to other people.
What’s important is to focus on what we do have. It’s not always easy of course, we have failed a few times. Sometimes we get stuck on things like “Oh, we don’t have sparring partners. We don’t have tradition. We don’t and we don’t and we don’t.” It’s easy to get into a negative mindset and put obstacles in front of us. I think that it’s very important first of all mentally, to see the things that we do have. And when we see the process that we do have in Israel, we have a special system. Because we don’t have a lot of sparring partners, we have a more personal relationship also with the coach, also with each other. There’s not as much of a hierarchy between the fencers. We’re friendlier to each other. Technically, it’s just a question of making the most out of each fencer. Because we don’t have many sparring partners, each fencer has to do his absolute maximum to make the most out of the tools that he has.
IG – What motivates you?
YF – It’s a good question, and I think it’s an especially good question when it comes to corona. What motivates athletes usually is competing, and training, and then implementing that training in competition and then seeing where your strengths are after a competition. Competition is like an exam. Usually people go to school and study to get a grade, to see how they are ranked against other people in the competition. When there’s no external competition and no external motivation, athletes have to find internal motivation, especially during corona time. It’s called an inner drive, I like the term internal engine.
“I needed to remind to myself why I love fencing”
When the quarantine first started I sat inside for two months thinking “Hmm. I’m sitting here now. I cannot fence. I cannot train regularly.” It forced me to think about why I’m fencing. It forced me to remember what I enjoy about fencing and why I’m doing sport and why I put the effort in. For me, I remembered how much I enjoy fencing as fencing. Not just competing. Not just training. I love the sport. I love the challenge in it. I love solving the puzzle, which is my opponent. As an athlete it’s important for everyone to find their motivation and to find their own individual goals, but also as human beings it’s important to make life more interesting and a bit spicier, a bit more meaningful. I think corona gave people a lot more time to think about those things.
IG – How many hours a day did you train during corona?
YF – Probably about two and a half hours a day. Only fitness because we couldn’t fence because the club was closed. We couldn’t meet, we couldn’t have lessons, there was no fencing at all. So I was training in the garden for about two and a half hours. All different things. I’ve got a fantastic fitness coach.
IG – So you are fit and stronger now.
YF – I am. I’m lucky to say that I’m fitter and stronger than I was before the corona, yes.
Turning a presumable disadvantage into an asset
IG – You are not the tallest fencer on the circuit [Editor’s note: Yuval is 172 cm, which is 5’6]. So your attack should be faster. You need to travel a bit longer distance in a bit shorter time.
YF – I think I’m lucky to be this size. I don’t see it as a disadvantage. I think it’s something that’s helped, I don’t think I’ve been the most consistent fencer, but I think my ability to make the most out of what I have and accept “Ok, these are my tools and I accept it” has helped me improve and get some reasonable results. I come up against fencers like Yannick Borel and I know he’s very tall, very strong, very big, and I have to make sure I’m as precise and as accurate as possible.
IG – What is your advice to such kids? What do they have at their disposal that they can use against their opponents?
YF – The question of how tall someone is shouldn’t make a difference. You fence against someone taller or someone shorter or someone stronger or someone weaker or someone whatever it is, you come to the bout saying “I can win.” It doesn’t matter what the size is. It’s a question of just the mindset. You need to believe you can win. When I step on the piste I bring my character, my spirit. It’s vital to show presence, show that you are here to fight, to step up to the challenge. Of course, having to implement it afterwards is more difficult.
You have to know where your strengths are. One, you have to make sure you find the correct distance for you, to make things uncomfortable for your opponent. If you can’t keep your distance then their counterattack will ruin every effort. If you try to catch the blade. If you try to make a fast attack, there’s a counterattack and you’re short and it’s not going to happen. You have to find the right distance for you.
Number two is footwork. Footwork in fencing is of course super important. The footwork first of all is to find the right distance. Shorter fencers have to work a little bit harder on those elements. On footwork, on getting the right distance, on being explosive when it’s time to attack. It has to be very explosive and it can’t just rely on a longer arm and a longer reach in case of mistake to maybe get a double because every touch is a lot harder to make in epee, especially with the doubles. If you don’t have the right timing and the right distance, which is based on the footwork, then it’s going to be very difficult. I think the most important thing in the end in fencing in general is having the right mindset.
If you were to ask me what advice or what tips I would give to short fencers, it’s to find more unconventional solutions. If you fence against someone like Bogdan Nikishin for example, and you go straight attack it’ll be a counterattack for him, or in a best case maybe a double if you find a good timing and good distancing. If you’re shorter, you have to work on extra elements of an invitation or a feint or playing with the distance, doing two actions – inviting a counterattack or inviting a parry riposte and then be ready for another parry riposte. Trying to maybe put that one extra step to put yourself in a situation where you are in the advantage. You have to create the situation, the dynamic of the bout that is best for you, initiate.
When I get the counterattack I can work on the blade, which is one of the most important things for me, I work on it as much as I can. Not always easy of course because of the distance and the timing and getting the reaction from your opponent. It’s a very important tool.
What happened in this bout with Bogdan Nikishin
IG – The last touch, I think it was 14-12. Nine seconds on the clock. Against conventional wisdom that says oftentimes retreat, you went for attack. Why?
YF – It was fourteen – ten and Bogdan attacked twice. He had two in a row. Two very easy points. One, he hit me on the hand, I didn’t retreat so much, and when he pushed me to the end he really closed the distance, I did not succeed with my parries and he was scoring.
And then something happened. I don’t remember exactly what the problem was, but the referee took some break and he stopped the bout for some reason. I think he wanted the other referee to control the timer or check the clock, I don’t know exactly what it was, but there was a twenty-five or thirty second break between fourteen twelve and the next point, which gave me some time to think – if I go back again, Bogdan might do the same thing and then fourteen – thirteen with five seconds, very dangerous. I made a decision in that time, I breathed, I said ok this is the decision I’m going to make one hundred percent. I knew of course that Bogdan would have to come forward because the time is against him. I did a beat on the blade and a feint attack and hit his hip or his thigh. For me, it was the correct decision.
IG – It’s very difficult to object to this.
YF – If he’d hit, I don’t know. Impossible to know. I think it was a bit surprising for him. I don’t think that he expected me to come forward. In the end I had to make the decision and go with it without any doubt.
IG – Maybe the break gave you enough time to think about your next move.
YF – Also, I think before the bout was stopped Nikishin gained this momentum in two touches, quick touches. I think he was thinking “Ok. I can actually come back now. I can put pressure on and make the touches.” I think that break stopped him. I think it was not so good for him, that break. I’m not sure what he was thinking about it, but I think it wasn’t good for him.
IG – That’s why sometimes fencers tie their shoes to take a break, to break the streak.
YF – Yes. For me, and it’s my personal opinion, I have a problem with this, but of course it’s in the rules, everyone does what they choose to do. I try to keep as much as possible to the limitations of the bout. If you need to tie your shoes, you tie your shoes, but not as your tactical breaks. The other players see it, and it’s some strange way of breaking momentum and not really fencing. I believe that if you are fencing, you find the tactical solutions in the fencing and not outside the fencing. Not with other things. There’s a one minute break and you can tie your shoes in that one minute. That’s my opinion, but it’s part of the rules and everyone can do what they like.
A mental side of fencing
IG – What was easier from the mental perspective for you, the semi-final or the final bout?
YF – I think it might sound strange for you or for someone looking from the side, but I was not thinking about it. I was not thinking of the bout in these terms. I knew of course that this wasn’t just another bout, this was the final for the European Championships and I knew that a lot was on the line. I knew there were a lot of silver medalists and only one champion.
As I clicked myself in and put on my mask, it was Santarelli, who I enjoy fencing a lot, I was happy that I could fence him not because he was easy – we had fenced in the past four times, we fenced knockouts he beat me then. I took into account that he was going to come with a lot of confidence. The style of fencing, it’s more fun than fencing someone who has a style like Nikishin, who’s much more solid and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. Santarelli is a lot more fluid, he moves more. So I knew that it would be a fun bout. I connected myself and from that moment on all I thought is just each point, point after point. It was just my mindset on that day as the day got further, it was easier to stay in that mindset. It was just this zone.
IG – Do you have any special tools for how you prepare yourself mentally? Any tips for fencers on how to get to this mental state?
YF – There’s not one size fits all when it comes to mental preparation. I know there are some certain physical exercises that I do that help me a lot. Number one is breathing, and I think every athlete you speak to when they’re under pressure or under stress or there’s some situation with a very high intensity and the scores are close, something like this, the most important thing is to breathe. Take a deep breath through the nose and let it out through the mouth. That’s number one. That’s also the easiest because it doesn’t take a lot of effort. Breathe, breathe and drop the shoulders and just make sure that the muscle tension goes down.
For me when I prepare, there is an additional trick in my mental preparation and it helps me a lot. I think a lot of fencers notice me as well, I have this crazy ball. A little crazy red ball that I drop and it bounces quickly to different directions and I have to catch it. Instead of thinking, like you ask, about the result of the bout or my opponent or what might happen, because these are usually thoughts that cause pressure or cause stress – what will be, what will the result be, what might happen, what if I lose – all I think about is catching this red crazy ball, and it prevents me from thinking negatively and keeps me in the present.
Each person has their own way of preparing for a bout. Some people like to do positive imaginations, they close their eyes and they think about a positive touch. When I talk to young fencers in Israel and they say “I don’t know how I’m going to touch, nothing is working. I feel like everything I do is bad.” I say, “Take two minutes. Go to the side. Close your eyes. Block everything out. Just imagine yourself touching. Imagine your point touching your opponent. Imagine yourself doing a feint. Imagine yourself doing a lunge and really hitting the opponent.” I think sometimes these things can really change a negative mindset to a positive one. If this solution doesn’t work all the time, find a different solution. Each person has to do their individual work. The physical and technical aspect of fencing is easy, relative to the mental effort that needs to be put in. At least from my point of view.
Role of the coaches in Yuval Freilich’s life
IG – What is the relationship between you and your coach, Ohad Balva.
YF – I’ve been coached by Ohad for nearly ten years now. I started fencing in Australia and I came back to Israel and I had a different coach. I trained with him for three or four years in Jerusalem. His name was Pasha Evdokimov and he was a fantastic coach for me. I moved later in my career to another club and started working with Ohad Balva. I think he really sees fencing as a game. Some people like to call fencing chess in movement. I don’t think it’s as sophisticated as chess, but Ohad really has the ability to see fencing as a thinking game.
IG – What is his role in competition?
YF – He comes with us to the competition, he gives us a lesson in the morning. Ohad is the single and only national coach. I see other teams come to the competition and they have five coaches with them, two national coaches or one main coach and one deputy coach and they come with staff and physical therapists and a whole team. Ohad is alone with six fencers and he does his best to go from one fencer to another and he cannot be in five places at one time, but he tries to be with us as much as possible. For me personally, I like to be in the bout and to solve the problems on my own. For me, a competition is like an exam. You close the material, you close the help from the side and you try to solve the problems on your own.
IG – You said that you started fencing in Australia. That’s not a very fencing country, how did you come to fencing?
YF – We were in Sydney in 2000 and my family went to see fencing in the Olympics. I’d always been into individual sports, I have good hand eye coordination and I like movement. I like the connection between movement and thinking. One day my dad said to me “Yuval, maybe fencing?” He remembered the Olympics and so I started when I was eight years old. I didn’t know what fencing was and he said it was sword fighting. I said wow, my eyes got big. Pirates of the Caribbean and Princess Bride and swords and it was cool. I said I’d try fencing and from the very first lesson I had the most fantastic coach. I remember this coach, and to this day I’ve tried to find her but I haven’t succeeded. She moved to Canada. I don’t know if she’s still coaching. She wasn’t a professional fencing coach, she was a fencer and she just gave me lessons.
IG – This blog is read by many people and maybe someone will read it. What’s her name?
YF – She may have gotten married and so I don’t know. Her first name Noko and her surname then, which was about 15 years ago, was McKinney. So her name was Noko McKinney.
IG – Noko McKinney, if you read this blog, please contact me.
YF – I’m sure if she’s still following fencing, she saw me in the European Championships, but I’m not sure if she’s still following fencing. I hope that if I get to the Olympics I’ll use that platform to shout out and call out to her.
“I remember the fun I had in first trainings”
I had my first lesson with Noko and my mom was sitting there watching and I said “When do we start learning the tricks? When do we start throwing up the sword and catching it?” And Noko said “That’s not fencing, that’s swordfighting from the movies.” I thought the real fencing was the swordfighting from the movies, backflips and jumps, not just the back and forth. That’s what I thought fencing was. I quickly understood that’s not how it is. But from the beginning, I loved fencing. It was a perfect connection from the very first lesson.
IG – The role of the first coach is so important. I think it’s not even the technique so much as the drive. The fire and the ice.
YF – Energy and enthusiasm. Ohad pushed me and improved me forward and made my fencing maybe a bit more sophisticated, a bit more nuanced. Really, my fencing is based on what Pasha taught me. Noko is very important for me to remember because of the energy and remembering the fun that I had in the first trainings. It reminds me a bit of why I’m doing fencing sometimes. Things aren’t so easy and I remember now, why I loved it so much. I am extraordinarily lucky with my coaches throughout the years. It hasn’t always been easy, but they were always able to push me forward, make me a better fencer.
IG – You have a big year ahead of you. In ten months or so, you’ll have the zonal qualification.
YF – Hopefully.
IG – Let me knock on wood.
Breaking the barriers
IG – We didn’t discuss another obstacle in your life – that you come from a religious family.
YF – I’m not sure how much young fencers or young athletes can relate to how I grew up in a religious family, being religious in Israel. We have our rules and regulations and pretty strict limitations on what we can and can’t do in different aspects of life. Food. Things we can eat, things we can’t eat. What we do on Saturday, what we don’t do on Saturday, and other things that religious Jews observe.
One of the rules for religious people is that on Saturdays you don’t work, meaning you cannot train, you cannot drive, you cannot compete. It’s a day of rest. All the competitions in Israel were on Saturday, so I could not compete. Until about the age of twelve or thirteen I was training and I was fencing and I was improving. My coach and I did understand that I had some potential or talent or I was a bit better than the other fencers in the club, but I could not compete.
That was a real obstacle for me. We tried to change the fencing association’s decision and to maybe hold the competitions on Sunday, move them to a weekday where I could compete. In general we tried to change the days of competition. It worked for a little bit, but in the long run it didn’t make a difference. So I had to make a decision: am I going to observe the Sabbath, the Saturday like I’ve been brought up and not fence, or I can decide ok, there are eight competitions during the year. I’ll fence on Sabbat eight times a year and I can continue what I love doing in fencing and observe and do what I believe on the other Saturdays. I remember that period very well, it was not easy. There were some national competitions that I could not participate in or that I had to leave in the middle.
In retrospect, when I look at it from now, I can see it as an opportunity now. I can see my relationship to my success in that story now. I can say, I made a sacrifice when it comes to fencing. Was it the right choice? I think that period did help me in my belief to become a stronger and better fencer. I said, ok I’m going to make the sacrifice. I think it did give me an extra little bit of strength and meaning to my fencing, because it came at a real cost.
IG – The decision to compete has not only affected you, but it has affected your family because somebody has to drive you, somebody needed to make sacrifices of their values and beliefs to support you.
YF – It’s difficult to describe the atmosphere of a religious family. I’ve got a very big family, lots of brothers and sisters. Friday night and Sabbath was very special for our family. Suddenly, one of us disappears and goes to a competition, and my parents came with me because I was young and couldn’t go on my own. It does something to the fabric of the family. I was very lucky with my family who were there and supported and gave me the backing that I needed. If I decided to fence they were going to support that. If I wasn’t going to fence, they were going to support that.
Then I decided I was going to be an athlete in the military, which is not as important as other jobs are going to be. I had to decide if I was going to be a “real soldier” or going to go be an athlete, and my family was there to support me. So my family had to decide even though it did impact them. But they took it on the chin, so I am very lucky.
When I look back on it, it gives me extra meaning in fencing. Every athlete gives up some sort of normal lifestyle in order to do what they do. I think, as a religious athlete, I had to sacrifice or give up that extra little bit more than other athletes do.
IG – You are an amazing person to discuss fencing with. Thanks a lot for your discussion.
YF – Thank you for reaching out. I think that we have quite a difficult time promoting fencing and giving it a larger audience , so I think it’s super important that you have your blog. When I finish my fencing career I’ll do what I can to promote it here and abroad. I was happy to have the opportunity to talk.
This interview has been edited down for time and readability after our wonderful discussion with Yuval Freilich. It is published with his approval on this blog.
Thank you so much to the tremendously innovative epee fencer Yuval Freilich for being open and candid during this interview. We know that the future ahead holds much bold success for him, and we are grateful for his sharing that vision with our readers.
As a less-tall Jewish fencer who was in Israel during the ’73 Yom Kippur War – thank you!
Hi R, it would be a great think to learn your story more!
I’ll tell you when we meet – please HaShem – at October’s NAC.