Elite athletes can be found in all sports, but undoubtedly one of the biggest sporting events every year is the Super Bowl.
Football and fencing might seem like polar opposites, but in reality they have a lot in common. First off, both are very physical sports that require precision and focus. They also both have proud histories. Fencing and football each require years of discipline and dedication in order to achieve mastery. There’s a certain amount of daring required to play football and to fence, after all each does require you to hit you opponent.
Finally, both can be perhaps a bit stuffy and stiff. That’s not to say that they aren’t fun and immensely enjoyable to engage in, but it is to say that there is a perception that in order to be good in football or in fencing you have to be ultra serious. Practice and competition aren’t supposed fun – they’re supposed to be focused, right? Well, actually you can be both focused and have an incredible amount of fun. And probably this is the only way to succeed by having both.
The Smiling, Laughing Super Bowl Quarterback
For anyone who might be unaware, Super Bowl 50 is right around the corner, and for us in San Jose pun is intended. This year’s game features the Denver Broncos versus the Carolina Panthers. While the Broncos are a well established team with a well established quarterback, Peyton Manning, Carolina is one of the last teams to have been added to the NFL and they’re playing a young quarterback in Cam Newton.
Cam Newton is quite a unique quarterback. He won the Heisman during college, was the No. 1 draft pick in the NFL, and this year was named Offensive Player of the Year and MVP of the NFL. He’s shattered more records than we can count. Newton is incredibly innovative in the way that he both runs the ball and throws it, which is why his team has won 18 of their last 19 games and is currently the winningest team in the NFL. But the other thing that he brings, the thing that drives his innovation on the field, is FUN.
When you watch this guy play, you can tell that he is loving every single minute of it. He runs the length of the football field giving high fives to people in the stands. He hands touchdown balls to kids in the crowd after he scores. He dances. He sings. He takes selfies with his team. He SMILES.
That kind of fun is something that we fencers (and all athletes) can really learn from.
Fun vs. Cockiness
Newton has got his critics, people who say that he’s being showy or cocky.
Let’s be clear here – having fun is not the same as being unsportsmanlike. You can revel in your victory without throwing it in the other guy’s face.
The way that you can tell the difference in a competitor who is having fun as opposed to one who is being full of themselves is in how they interact with their opponents. If you give your opponent a hug or a handshake after a match, or congratulate them on their good performance, then you’re showing that you see the value that they bring to your life. The way that you can really tell a good sportsman is in the way that they handle defeat. Does a loss send the player off to the corner to sulk, or do they stand proud of their performance and smile, learning from their mistakes and taking joy in competition?
Sport is not something that we do alone and for competitive athletes, there is always an opponent. We need our opponents to push us to be better, to help us see our weaknesses. Competition is something that we share, and that includes sharing the joy of the experience, no matter what the outcome. Just as Cam Newton sees it as a privilege to be playing professional football, so too do we need to realize how incredibly lucky we are to be fencing!
Fun Brings Focus and Flow
Being in the moment is what focus is all about. When you’re focused, you’re thinking about what’s going on right here, right now. The kind of focus that we’re talking about is called “flow,” or you may have heard it called being “in the zone.” When we’re right there in that moment, completely immersed in the fencing experience and without any thought of other things that might be pulling on our attention, it’s absolutely golden. That’s when the magic happens, and when we’re fencing our best. We can respond to changes more quickly and adapt our methods to get us the points that we’re looking for.
While flow is really amazing, it’s also difficult to get to. One way that you can access flow is to allow yourself to have fun! The same thing that happens when you’re in the zone also happens when you’re having a lot of fun – you’re joyfully experiencing what’s right here in front of you without being distracted. Allowing your joy to take over can be a powerful gateway into flow.
One of the things that everyone has talked about is how Cam Newton is able to adapt so quickly to changes on the field. Though he might call one play, he is known to change it up in response to his opponents. A really serious reason for that is likely the fun that he’s having. He can access focus because he’s accessing fun!
And guess what? You as a fencer can do the same thing. Smile while you’re practicing! Allow that joy that you feel to come out and watch your ability to be “in the zone” increase dramatically, allowing you to adapt to changing opponents and to do more on the strip. Even just smiling under your mask as you start a bout, or letting out some giggles before you stand up for your match can relieve tension and pull your mind to the present moment.
If you happen to tune into the Super Bowl on Sunday, don’t just enjoy those commercials. Take note of how these elite athletes play their game, and see what you can learn as a fencer from the fun (or lack of fun) that they’re having on the field. Then at your next fencing practice, try to enjoy the moment and let that lead you to focus. Remember – fencing is fun!
P.S., you might think that I am biased for the Panthers. The truth is I am fan of 49ers, but unfortunately they didn’t get to the Super Bowl this season and fortunately Cam Newton is an easy sport character to drive the point home 🙂