Have you ever picked up your fencing weapon at the start of a bout and heard your heart pounding in your ears? Your thoughts start racing and your breathing starts to quicken. That hand holding your sword can get sweaty inside the fencing glove, perhaps even beginning to shake a little bit.
Even if your experience hasn’t gotten this far, maybe you’ve struggled to clear your mind and be present in the moment during a match. You might be in the pool round but thinking about your possible opponents in the direct elimination round instead of focusing on what’s in front of you. As a result, you give up more points than you’d like to and lose the bout.
When you’re traveling for a fencing competition or if you have a lot of other things going on in your life, those thoughts can become obtrusive, weaseling their way into your brain when you’re trying to put your attention on the opponent. You might be thinking about the bad weather outside that could delay your flight home or the pile of chores or work that’s waiting for you at home.
Every fencer gets nervous
Nerves are a reality for fencers who are competing at any level. Those first few fencing competitions are nerve-wracking because it’s all so new, then there’s a pressure that ratchets up as fencers continue to progress higher. The stakes can feel overwhelming, but in reality, it’s just another match, even when it’s not.
The most experienced fencers at the highest level get nerves. Olympic fencers and World Champions learn how to overcome those nervous feelings to help them compete with less anxiety. In fact, overcoming anxiety about the process is incredibly important because we cannot perform at our best level when we’re unsure of ourselves. That mind chatter and frantic energy is fundamentally detrimental to a good fencing performance.
What are grounding techniques?
Grounding techniques are a method of getting control of your emotions. Rather than being bulldozed by what you feel and think, you’re able to jump into the driver’s seat and take the wheel. You do this by bringing yourself into the here and now, the present moment.
Over time and with practice, you can learn to anchor yourself in grounding rather than anchoring yourself in nerves. It’s a skill that has to be developed, just like the skill of footwork or the skill of parrying an opponent.
Grounding techniques are an effective way to combat nervousness or anxiety before a match of any kind. It’s advisable to practice them in open fencing practice and even if you’re not overly nervous, grounding techniques will help you to focus more effectively. You’ll improve not only your performance but also your enjoyment of the sport!
Why grounding techniques work
When you are presented with a situation that requires you to go against an opponent, it’s natural to feel threatened. This is true of all sports, but it’s especially true in fencing because we’re a combat sport.
Any time you’re put into a threatening situation, your brain sends out lots of signals to your body that lock you down. You’re thrust into fight, flight, or freeze mode. If you’re getting nervous to the point that it’s interfering with your ability to fence effectively, then it’s likely because you’re in that stress response. That can spiral out of control once it gets started, causing you more and more stress. It’s a vicious cycle.
Fight, flight, or freeze isn’t just a brain thing, it’s a whole body reaction. It’s our nervous system attempting to protect us from danger. Your brain starts sending out stress hormones and your nervous system goes off like a firecracker. Your senses become heightened and your muscles get tense. Depending on all kinds of factors that are specific to you and to your situation, you could go into any one of the three.
Obviously in fencing, if you click into fight mode then you’re going to be just fine. That response will help lead you to the flow state, which is where we’d like to be. More often than you would want, you’ll end up in flight or freeze, and both of those are going to be a problem.
Grounding techniques pull you out of that high-stress response mode. You’re no longer totally overcome with what’s going on around you, and instead you’re able to focus on fencing. You’re pulling yourself out of freeze or flight mode and face your opponent. These techniques shut down the nervous system response and allow you to get back to fencing.
Grounding techniques for fencers
Using grounding techniques before every match will help you to form a habit and will even out your fencing performance as well as improving it.
Here are three grounding techniques that will help you get on target for your fencing.
1 – Reframe the competition
If you see the opponent as a threat, you’re much more likely to get that stress response going. If you reframe your idea of your opponent as a challenge rather than as a threat, you are less likely to engage in that fight-flight-freeze response. A sword is not a sword, it’s a tool for getting points. In this way, it’s not that different from a baseball bat or a basketball. It’s just a tool. Your opponent is not a fighter, they’re another player.
This extends to unattaching yourself from the negative outcomes. Rather than focus on the bad consequences of losing, think instead of this bout as an opportunity to succeed. When you put the attention on what could go wrong, you increase the stress response in your brain and are more likely to freeze up.
You can effectively reframe in a positive way by thinking back to your previous experiences in fencing. This is going to improve your confidence, and it’s also going to give you a mental touchstone. Coming back to these experiences is a powerful thing, and it really works. Even if you’re a novice fencer, you can draw on matches that you’ve had in the club.
Because you’ve done well in the past, you can build on the hard-earned confidence that you’ve had. Essentially, we’re using a resource that you’ve already got.
To get yourself started, do the following exercise after a fencing match. You can go back and look at a video of yourself if you’ve got one, or you can just think back to an experience that you had previously.
- List three things that you did well
- List three things that you could do better on
The three things that you did well are obviously for you to focus on for the next competition. Looking at three things that you could do better on will help you to reflect on your growth in the future. Part of this process is seeing how well you do over time.
An easy way to implement this as a practice is to create a mental checklist to go over on the day of a fencing tournament that includes the positive things that you experienced in previous matches that you’ve already cataloged. You can write this down in your fencing journal or keep it in a note on your phone. Just going over the list will help you reframe your thoughts.
2 – Engage your body
The next grounding technique can be done while you’re actually on the strip. If you find yourself getting out of control and unable to pull your mind and body out of fight-flight-freeze, then you can use these during a match. They work well in conjunction with the small tactical breaks that we’ve written about before on this blog.
There are actually two techniques that we’re going to give you here. One is deep breathing, which you’ve likely tried before. The other is a sensory engagement exercise that you might not have tried before.
Deep breathing actively disengages that fight or flight response. This is a proven one, and it’s easy to do anywhere. The four-five-six deep breathing method is particularly good for releasing tension and easing anxiety. Here’s how you do it.
- Inhale through your nose for a count of four
- Hold the air in for a count of five
- Exhale through your mouth for a count of six
You can do this right during a fencing competition when you’re on the strip. If you’re using this before you actually start fencing, and that’s a great way to go, then repeat it four times or eight times, depending on how long feels right for you.
This kind of breathing work is extraordinary when you learn to practice it regularly. You can do it preemptively at a competition, in the morning when you wake up at the hotel, just after your warmup when your muscles are feeling good, or as you wait your turn to compete. It’s also worth doing when you’re standing around waiting for the results if you find your nerves getting away with you.
The second technique is really about engaging your senses. When that stress and anxiety starts going, it takes us out of our body and causes us to stop feeling the world around us. Reversing the fight-flight-freeze response by engaging all of your senses is surprisingly easy.
Here’s how you do this one. You can either say these things out loud, quietly if you’re in a crowded space, or you can just say them in your head.
- Name five things you can see – the ceiling tiles above your head, the referee standing at the edge of the strip, the chair that a parent is sitting in, the shoes of a kid across the venue, the registration table
- Name four things you can feel – your sword in your hand, the mask on your face, the waistband of your knickers, your socks inside your shoes
- Name three things you can hear – a mom telling her son to sit still, the buzz of the air conditioner, the shuffling of feet
- Name two things you can smell – popcorn from the refreshment stand, the plasticy smell of your mask
- Name one thing you can taste – the sports drink you took a sip of a few minutes ago
Above, those are examples of how you could use the 5-4-3-2-1 sensory exercise during a match, while you’re actually on the strip. You can also use this in the same instances you would use deep breathing. It’s a great way for you to make your mind slow down.
A final, bonus grounding technique we’ll give you here is peppermint. Yes, peppermint! The strong sensation of eating a peppermint can be highly effective in grounding your mind when you’re struggling with nerves. You can’t just pop one in your mouth though. While you’re eating the mint, let it melt in your mouth slowly. Use either the deep breathing technique or the sensory engagement technique above in conjunction with it to bring you right into the present moment.
3 – Visualization
Our final grounding technique is a tried and tested way to enhance performance. When you visualize your performance, not just the outcome, but the entire experience, you will see a major reduction in anxiety and a bump in mastery.
You might have heard visualization called mental rehearsal and imagery technique. When you do this, you imagine the whole event – how you will salute, how you will perform, how you will counter your opponent, and even how the score will go. It’s important to go into as much detail as possible when you do this.
This is a good place to use some of those sensory skills that you might have worked on during the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise. Think about not only the way that the match should look, but really put yourself in the situation. Look at it from the inside, rather than from the outside.
When you visualize, feel the weight of your weapon in your hand and the pressure of the touch when your weapon hits the opponent. Hear the clank of the metal swords as they clash against each other. Hear the sound of the scoring machine and the murmuring of the crowd. What does it sound like when the referee calls a point? What does the inside of your mask smell like?
Think about it in real time, not in slow motion. The further you can go, the better the outcome will be. If it’s a big match and you’ve been prepping for it for a while, you can even go through an entire three minute period in your mind in real time. This is a fantastic exercise to do when you’re on a plane or in the car traveling.
Extend it beyond your physical sensations. Think through what it feels like emotionally as well. Are you calm or excited? Are you even keel or are you full of anxiety?
On competition day, you can run this through in the venue for an even bigger bump. When you’ve got downtime between matches, think about your next bout and imagine what it will look like. You can even go to the strip to see exactly what it will be.
If you know who your opponent will be and you’ve met them before, go ahead and visualize what that person in particular will be like. Are they taller than you or shorter? Are they right handed or left handed? When you practice this technique, you can imagine yourself using specific techniques that will meet the needs of that particular match. Oftentimes, we come against opponents who we already know. We know their weaknesses and our weaknesses against them. Visualizing can help to meet those challenges.
When you work through creative visualization like this, you’re practicing your mental coping strategies. Just like you run your footwork drills over and over again to make it second nature, so too can you run your mental drills over and over again to make them second nature. This is really a strategy of mental practicing.
Grounding through visualization is all about taking back control where we feel out of control. Rather than putting our head in the sand and hiding from the match, we are taking control of our own narrative in the match. This is really helps to combat nervousness and to reduce anxiety.
Closing thoughts on grounding
If you don’t give your mind something to do, it will absolutely find something to do. Too often, that something turns into worrying about the match and fretting over the outcome. All of that wild thinking only serves to create roadblocks for us, making it far more difficult to get into the zone and overcome our opponents.
In fencing, we want to direct the action that our mind is taking, getting it to go in the direction that will make us successful. Grounding techniques are a highly effective way to stop that runaway thinking.
Whether you’re in a national competition or a local competition, or even if you’re training with an intimidating fencer right in your own club, you don’t have to live with nervousness. Practicing mental health techniques will greatly benefit you. Though every fencer gets nervous, every fencer also has the opportunity to tackle those nerves and get their mind and body onboard.
Look for grounding techniques that work for you and your life! Not everything that we listed here is going to hit the right spot for you. Try different methods and continue to develop that mental muscle.
A great thing about this is that it’s a transferable skill, so you’ll be able to use these techniques not only in fencing, but in any highly stressful situation. Grounding techniques allow us to take control of our minds so that we can become more focused and perform better, whether it’s in competition or in practice.