Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Frustration in Fencing – the Beast or an Ally?

Frustration in Fencing - the Beast or an Ally?

Fencing can be infuriating. The frustration of things not going your way, even when you are working hard to do everything the right way, can be overwhelming for fencers at times. It’s the reason you see fencers get angry and throw their sword or yell at the referee. It’s the reason you see fencers clench their fists and it can be the reason fencers yell on the strip. All that balled-up emotion that gets pushed down deep. 

One of the unfortunate realities of fencing is that you can do everything right and STILL get hit.  That is, you can select a good action and execute it with the right distance and timing, but if your opponent guesses correctly, you can still lose the touch!

How can a fencer possibly combat this reality?

The metaphor of a beast in the case of frustration is a fitting one. But what if it didn’t have to be a beast? What if you could work with frustration to help your fencing get better? If this can happen, then frustration can transform from a beast to an ally.  

Perfect fencing does not always equal winning

“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life.” – Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Ok, so we know that Captain Picard is only a fictional fencer, but this quote is impossibly true for fencers. You can make every right move in a fencing match, follow every direction of your expert coach, and still lose the match. You can commit no mistakes and still lose. This is real fencing.

A fencer can do everything right and still get hit. You can do everything right and still miss the touch. You can have perfect form, perfect distancing, perfect timing, and perfect intention, and your opponent can still get lucky. As much as fencing requires mental acuity and focus, it is not an exact science. Life is not an exact science either! In almost any situation in life, things can turn out unexpectedly. 

If that is the case, what’s the point of trying? Because what you are aiming for is not the point, it is not the touch. What you are aiming for is the growth through challenging yourself. 

Broad frustrations

Frustration in fencing is not just in small ways, it also happens in big, sweeping ways. Beyond just this touch missed or that touch missed, fencers experience varying levels of hitting metaphorical brick walls in their efforts to reach goals in the sport. 

You only have to look around to the last 15 months and the massive changes that have happened with the global pandemic to know that it is impossible to predict what will happen. The idea that we are totally in control of our fate, it’s a myth. That’s not to say that we don’t have a lot of control, because we do. We are not batted around like a tennis ball by life. However, it’s not constructive to ignore how much is out of our control. 

These are examples of big, macrocosmic level events that face fencing, and there are other cases that are not tied to global crises.

College fencing is a great example of this. Whether a particular program has any space for a particular gender or weapon in the year that a senior is applying, that’s not something that we can control. It’s so frustrating! A fencer could dream for their whole young life about going to a certain program, they could have all the right grades, they could have all the right fencing credentials, and they could then miss fencing for that university because the team is full. It’s an infuriating situation if you let it be. 

How to harness the frustration

So much of fencing is about wrestling with the true opponent – the fencer’s own mindset that is holding them back from achieving what they want in the sport. Frustration is going to come. It is absolutely unavoidable. The question then morphs into how a fencer stands up to that frustration. What tools can you use to make those intense feelings an ally instead of a beast?

We should be clear here that you are not going to get rid of frustration completely. It is something that you must learn to leverage, which is very much a possibility even for novice fencers. Right now, we’re blurring the lines into the psychology of sport, and it hopefully will be helpful for every one of you. 

Deep breathing

There is a physiological response when we butt up against something that is frustrating to us. We get flush, our heart starts racing, muscles tense, the mind loses focus, breathing quickens.

Deep breathing gives us control over just one of these responses, and that in turn allows us to regain control over the rest. You are attacking the physical response that is happening, pushing back against it. It’s an effective way to change your mindset. 

One very effective way to control breathing is to hold the breath in at the top and at the bottom. So in with control, hold the full lungs, out with control, and hold the empty lungs. It only takes one cycle of this to make a significant difference.

Opportunity: Develop emotional control.

Slow down

The instinct when frustration starts to take over is to move faster. You want to make up for that lost point! The problem is that you are only going to make the problem worse when you do this.

It is not easy to do, but in that moment when the adrenaline starts to go out of control, slow down. Pause for a moment. Your fencing instincts will catch back up with you if you give them just a couple of seconds to reset. If you don’t do this and instead keep charging forward, then you will only spiral down into chaos. You don’t want to do that! The further you go, the harder it will be.

Stop. Breathe. Slow down. Find your rhythm again. 

Opportunity: Develop self-control and mastery of your technique. 

Take a wider view

This one match, this one moment, it’s not forever. When you start to feel that churning rise of frustration, back off and look at what’s going on This can go with breathing too. This match – it’s not the end of the world!

Opportunity: See bigger goals and understand the context of each point and each match.

Change your expectations

At its heart, frustration comes about when your expectations don’t meet the reality of a situation. It’s the dissonance that tweaks something in you and makes it suddenly so hard!

The answer to this is to change your expectation. If you go into a match expecting to take down your opponent with ease, that this fencer is a piece of cake, then you are setting yourself up with bad expectations. If you find yourself in a 0-4 match to this person, then you get very annoyed. Change your expectations! Instead of expecting to waltz through a match, expect to have to focus and put your full effort in every time. Then you can only be pleasantly surprised when a match is easier instead of tied in knots that it’s not easy.

Opportunity: The chance to improve your adaptability. 

Move to action

Instead of focusing on what you cannot do, focus on what you can do! Look for positive actions that you can take. Get on the offensive if you are on the defensive. Move to the defensive if you are on the offensive. Make a change. If what you are doing is not working, then it’s not going to hurt anything to move to do something else. Just pick something and go! Make a change!

Oftentimes we get too stuck in the cycle in our head, and that is what drives our frustration. Get out of your head. Make a change. This is a wonderful opportunity to use frustration to learn and try things that you might not get to. 

Cut out toxicity

This one is tough, but it’s instantly recognizable. If there are people who feed your frustration, then ask them to change their behavior. If they won’t change, then don’t be around them if you can help it.

You know these types of behaviors. Friends who yell at you during the match and egg your anxiety on. Sometimes there are coaches who encourage frustration instead of supporting positive coping. Support people and parents are guilty of this. We have all seen the parents who jump in a yell at the referee over a call. This kind of behavior really makes it so much more difficult to combat negative emotions. It’s ok to ask people to stop.

Opportunity: Learn to advocate for yourself. 

Losing is learning

When emotions start to move in the wrong direction, they become a chain that has to be broken in order to move on. If you don’t break that chain, it will just get longer and longer until it wraps around you and binds you up tight. This is true of frustration in fencing, but it’s also true of frustration in life. You have to be able to determine your own direction!

It is so easy to be a fencer when things are going well. Of course it is! If you never are faced with tough challenges in your fencing, then what are you learning? You aren’t learning as much as you would if you were losing. 

Why is that?

If you are losing, then you are challenging yourself. This is why frustration is the ultimate ally in fencing! When you get frustrated, you now have a real reason to change. If things are going well then you have no reason to get better. The more frustration you have, the more your incentive is to make some big changes. That’s a good thing!

There is a limit to this. For this reason, you should try your best to cut off frustration as early as you can. When it gets too big, it’s much harder to control it. If you do get super crazy frustrated, well that’s ok too! Big frustration can mean big growth – it’s just much, much harder to tackle. 

Fencers, do not allow yourself to lose your progress because you get frustrated. There is always a way out. Even if you have been losing and feel like you are at your lowest, make the effort to look at your emotions in a different way and to create an environment of learning and growth in your fencing. 

The best part? This is one of those instances where your love of fencing really will translate into a boost in life. When you turn frustration from a beast to being your ally in fencing, well you can then transfer that skill to lots of other things. This is the art of fencing and the art of life!


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  1. R

    Well-written and comprehensive, but let me add from a ref’s perspective. When a fencer throws equipment or uses profanity, my consequence will depend on the fencer. For a novice, it means asking them what is the consequence, directing them to pick up their equipment and apologizing to their coach, their opponent and their opponent’s coach. A more experienced fencer I may only Red Card – acknowledging it’s meaningfulness at bout’s end. For known acting-outers or extreme behavior, I have Black Carded. Unfortunately, an international fencer used that to deny his finals opponent from renewing his A, by pulling a Black Card and thus down-rating the event.// Another collegiate frustration could be choosing a college then having its program cancelled, e.g Standford and Brown’s men’s teams, or downgraded to club, e.g. Rutgers.// For a variety of reasons, we have a greater proportion of DSM-V diagnosis (Austisim, anger management) then the general population. I’ve worked with several parents to control their fencers’ behavior so that their fencers are successful (one won a tournament this weekend earning his A), but these fencers still stand equal before the rules.

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