When a fencer loses a match, one of the most natural things to do is to start looking for a reason why they lost.
- What if my lunges had been longer?
- What if I had controlled the distance more effectively?
- What if I were more focused during the match?
- What if I had cross trained better?
These are pretty standard questions that fencers ask themselves, but they aren’t the only things that roll around in the minds of athletes when they lose. The big question, the elephant in the room, is this one:
What if I’m just a bad fencer?
Yourself vs. your fencing
All too often, we see fencers start to put a value on themselves rather than evaluating their fencing.
This is an incredibly important distinction, because it’s the line between self-worth and self-doubt. When a fencer starts to doubt themselves instead of believing that they can grow and accomplish things, that’s when they are setting themselves up for failure.
When you lose a match, it’s just a lost match. Even if it’s a match that happens at Fencing Summer Nationals in the first DE round, and even if it’s a match that’s lost in the Olympics, it’s just a match. Your identity is not your fencing.
This is an interesting point, because fencers tend to identify as the sport, which can be good in some situations but not so great in other situations. “I am a fencer” vs. “I am a person who does fencing.” We want our fencers to become part of the community and to see themselves as part of the sport, but what we don’t want is for them to identify as a “good fencer” or a “bad fencer”. Qualifying in this way is a wholly negative thing, and it is hugely detrimental to their self esteem.
Separating the judgement from identity is so, so important for young athletes who are going to succeed in the long term. Not only for them to succeed, but for them to be happy.
Changing the narrative
Do you know who a fencer talks to more than anyone else? Themselves. What you say to yourself has the most powerful influence over how you see yourself. It’s more important than what a coach says and more important than what a parent says. It’s even more powerful than the outcome of a match.
The narrative around identity is the critical part. The inner monologue should sound something like this:
- “I am a good fencer who had a bad match.”
- “I am a hardworking fencer who got out-fenced today.”
- “I am a strong competitor who is having an off day.”
Contrast to some of the alternatives, which we unfortunately hear out of the mouths of fencers, especially young ones, after a rough competition day.
- “I’m a terrible competitor.”
- “I’m a lazy fencer who didn’t practice hard enough.”
- “If I had more natural talent, I could have beaten that other fencer.”
If you hear a fencer saying something like this, or if you are a fencer who finds yourself saying something like this in your own mind, you have to immediately stop and correct it. Immediately stopping and calling out this habit will change it over time, and all for the better of the fencer’s performance and their happiness in the sport.
What does talent mean?
Though there are some instances where someone just has a natural talent in fencing, in truth talent is a small part of success in fencing. This is true of our sport even more than it is in other sports.
The debate over talent vs. hard work vs. privilege is a whole concept in sports that we see talked about often. Talent and privilege are certainly factors in any fencer’s success. The ability to train with incredible coaches who support and facilitate success is a privilege. Having family who supports a fencer financially but also emotionally is important to the success of an athlete. There are some aspects to physical and mental innate talent that can help a fencer to succeed, certainly that’s the case.
In our sport, raw athleticism is not the way to win in every match. Mental agility is just as important, and some fencers have a beautiful talent at reading their opponent that helps them to win matches.
The notion that another fencer is “just more talented” than you are and that’s why they win takes away your power to reach the goal. You have control over your preparation and focus in a match, no matter your fencing level. Understanding that control and then utilizing it is why you’ll never feel that another fencer is just better than you are.
Out-preparing your opponent
Though you may not have any control over whether a fencer has a different set of innate abilities than you do, you very much have control over whether you prepare for a given match or a given competition. How much focus and work you put into the sport is all in your control.
The difference between being out-talented and out-played is that being out-played is totally your own responsbility as you have complete control and responsibility over your own preparation. This is a positive thing!
With good strategy, a fencer can compensate for being taller or shorter than their opponent. They can compensate for being faster or slower. They can compensate for fencing against left-handed or right-handed opponents.
What really cannot be changed in a fencing match, the thing that will almost always give one fencer the upper hand over another, is experience. The more bouts you have fenced, the better you will be at fencing. This includes practice bouts of any kind, and, most importantly, competitive bouts. The more you do it, the more strategies you will learn and the better able you will be to read your opponent and anticipate their next moves.
No amount of “natural talent” can make up for fencing practice. It’s just the way our sport works. This makes success accessible to people in fencing where it might not be possible for them in other sport. There’s a reason our sport skews older than some other Olympic sports like gymnastics, because the physicality is not as strict in fencing as it is in those other sports.
Blame won’t improve your fencing
Placing blame on yourself or your opponent is not going to improve your fencing. There’s no scenario in which a fencer piling on themselves or piling on their opponent has ever helped the fencer to become more effective or to win. Not in the short term, and definitely not in the long term.
This is true in individual fencing events, and it’s true in team fencing as well. Blaming teammates for a loss, piling onto coaches for a lack of preparation, or laying it out on yourself about all of the things you did or did not do will only serve one function: it will push you further from your goals.
It’s futile to say that your opponent was “more talented” than you as a reason for the loss of a match. This is an excuse, and it prevents you from having any room to grow. If the other fencer’s talent is not something you can affect, then how will you ever be able to win against them?
It’s easy for us to look for things outside of our control to blame when a match doesn’t go well. Why? Because blaming in this way is easier than taking a hard look at our own practices and procedures. If you can’t change something, then it’s not your fault.
Focus on what you can change
If you’re outfenced in a match, for any reason, and it won’t help for you to blame others, then what can you do? You can focus on what you can control.
Here’s a list of the things (partial, of course!) that you can control in your preparation for the next match. Because you aren’t a bad fencer – you’re just a fencer who had a bad day.
- How closely you follow your coach’s training plan
- What goals you set for yourself (Are they to high and unrealistic? Are they high enough?)
- The level at which you study fencing outside the club
- How you interact with coaches and teammates
- The amount of enthusiasm you bring to training and competition
- The attention you bring to the details of competition/training
- The consistency you bring to your training
- How well you bounce back after a tough performance
- How well you take care of your fencing equipment
- The management of your time and responsibilities
- How well you take care of your own mental health
- How you manage stress, including travel stress
- And, of course, how you treat your body – How much sleep you get, the food that you eat, the amount of water you drink (hydration is so important!)
Personal responsibility can be incredibly empowering, especially in the face of a loss. When you stop to look at what you can do the next time, then you’ll be resilient even if you get out-fenced again.
There is no situation in which you are powerless in this sport. Though your opponent might get the better of you on a given day for any number of reasons, that loss does not define you. You are capable of improving your performance by taking charge of not only your preparation, but also your attitude.
Beating yourself up won’t help you beat your opponent. Channeling that frustration into action will.