How to Prepare for the Unique Challenges of a Large Fencing CompetitionIn the past few weeks I’ve written about the importance of preparing for various fencing competitions, and why your child should attend summer nationals.  I recently returned from March NAC and had several conversations with parents and their fencers about how grueling and challenging a competition at this level can be. I’d like to take a moment to share a bit of that conversation, as it could benefit many families in preparation for summer nationals, as well as other larger competitions down the line.

Over the course of the past 10-15 years American fencing has grown so much that it’s no longer a surprise to attend a national level tournament, such as NAC’s or Summer Nationals and walk into an arena filled with hundreds or maybe even thousand of fencers . Because of the sheer size of this kind of competition, your day is sure to be long, intense, and potentially draining.  It is essential that you make a plan to maintain your physical and mental stamina throughout the day.

While the vast numbers of fencers can indeed prove a distraction, there are several other components to this size of a competition that can drain you and leave you struggling to finish the day.

Flighted Events

When a competition has this many participants the competition flow may be adjusted to accommodate the volume of participants and sometimes some unexpected delays will occur. This can happen in one of two ways:

  1. Sometimes the events are delayed because  previous events are still in process and occupy the strips and referees.
  2. Pools may be flighted, meaning there is a first flight of fencing pools that start right away, while the other pools wait until strips and/or referees become available as each pool cycles through.

A typical first round of pools will end, leading into the next round of “on deck” pools, called a “second flight.” Pools from the second flight start promptly after any strip becomes available, one by one, until the last pool of the second flight is called. Because it’s not clear which flight you will be in until it’s about to happen, it’s almost impossible to come into the day with a plan of how to best optimize your time.

Flighted events can be inconvenient for fencers in many ways:

  • If you are in a second flight, you wait for 1 – 2 hours before you start your pool.
  • If you are in a first flight, you wait for 1 – 2 hours after you finish your pool to start the first DE.

It’s also very easy to lose your focus, or the benefits of your warm up while you’re waiting around.

How To Combat This: Manage your time wisely.  If you are scheduled for the second flight, plan for an additional hour to stay warm. Prepare with a light snack, hydrate well, take off your fencing uniforms, and be ready to re-warm up at least a bit before your pools start, since while you wait you will most likely get cold again.

Weapon Checks

During larger national or even regional competitions the line for the weapon check can be really really long. You can spend an hour just waiting for your turn.  Often times parents can help by standing in the line, but if your event starts at 8 am then spending time waiting for weapon check, on top of your own nervousness, and not being able to properly warm up, can all amount to a poor first bout.

How to Combat This:  Whenever you can, try to do a weapon check a day early. It’s possible to even send your gear with a friend or teammate a day earlier (if they are going earlier) to do the weapon check for you. Be sure you send the mask, cords, lame and gloves.

So Many Distractions

During big national tournaments, you end up spending the majority of your time in the venue which can be exhausting in and of itself.  But there’s also a lot going on in the venue – from the continuous non-stop beeping of the scoring machines, to the yells of the fencers, to the sounds of the clash of metal, to constant announcements on the PA system, and so much more.

You may become tired sitting in the same place watching fencing over and again waiting for your turn and hearing all this, as well as thinking about your past or previous bouts.

How To Combat This:  Try to distract yourself from the distractions. Listen to good music that puts you in the right mood. Perhaps most importantly,  go outside for fresh air. Better Fencer also has some great tips for managing distractions during this kind of larger competition.

It’s a Sprint AND a Marathon

Fencing competitions require the speed of a sprinter and the endurance of a marathon runner. Fencing is really an all-out sport!

Often, a competition day can run between 6 – 10 hours, while your child is wearing full gear. This is a lot of activity and a huge amount of playtime.

For example, in a competitive field of more than 200-300 fencers, which can be a “norm” in large national tournaments, to get to first place a fencer should:

  1. Fence 6 bouts in pools (each at 3 min)
  2. Fence 8 rounds of DE’s bouts, starting from a table of 256 (each at 9 minutes)

This fencing time totals to: 14 bouts or 6*3+8*9=18+72=90 minutes

That’s a lot of fencing in a day!

You could compare this to the length of a soccer match, which is typically about 90 minutes. However, in soccer players may not be continuously running over the course of the 90 minutes. They also may wait in their position for an opportunity.  Whereas in fencing, every minute is played at peak performance by your child. Of course, the difference is that it is spread out thru the day rather than done in a single shot, but nevertheless, the time comparison is worth noting.

To add to this, most of this activity is done in full gear and with a mask on, sometimes in an area that’s not ventilated well, and often on concrete floors instead of the more forgiving floors where they practice. Because of all of this, finding a way to recover and fight fatigue between fencing bouts is essential.

How to Combat This: Rest as much as you can. Hydrate as much as possible. Bring changes of clothes to keep you warm and/or cold depending on the current status of your next fight. Eat a healthy snack when you can but do not overeat. Take mask breaks and give yourself as much fresh air as possible. Take breaks outside when you can, take shoes off, change socks, listen to the music, do roller massage

This article in “The Conversation” recently reported on the benefits of hydrating with both caffeine-spiked drinks, as well as using a carbohydrate mouth rinse to help battle fatigue on long competition days.

Cross Country Flights  

Additionally, some competitions can take you across the country and to a different time zone, which is quite common when attending big fencing tournaments. In this situation, your child is not only battling their opponent, but they’re also physically battling time as well.

The worst, of course, is for West coasters to go to the East coast and have an 8 am scheduled event. This is a killer since your body is technically still feeling like it’s 5 am back in a home time zone.

How To Combat This:  A few days before departing for the competition, try to go to bed at a reasonable bedtime in the time zone you will be traveling to. For example, if on the West Coast and traveling to the East coast, try to go to bed one or two hours earlier than you usually would.  

The same goes for breakfast.  For many, including myself and my own kids, eating at 6:30 am on East coast does not seem possible. Our bodies still think it is the middle of the night. Forcing ourselves to eat keeps my fencers energized. Do not skip breakfast under any circumstance. Force yourself to eat to be energized all day.

Blinded by the Fencing Time Live Results  

Many fencers spend a lot of times in front of the monitors to learn their seeding and their tableau.  Staying near the monitors waiting for them to show your seeding and your fencing branch in a tableau can be exhausting. It also creates a lot of anxiety. You have a front row seat to hearing other fencers talk about their bouts.

You may not be able to help to compare yourself to the other fencers around you, especially when you overhear their talk. This is particularly dangerous in the youth categories.  Fencers can overly exhaust themselves with a constant calculation of who they are going to meet down the road, what their seed will be, etc. It all creates a lot of unnecessary mental pressure.

How to Combat This: Instead, forget about your seeding and seek only the information you need, which essentially boils down to two things:  on what strip and when is your next bout.

Stay Focused…on Yourself

In multi-weapon/age/category events, such as NAC’s, SYC’s and others, you may have a lot of teammates participating in other events. It will be tempting to check on them, spend time with them when you are not fencing, or even come earlier to cheer them on.

How to Combat This:  Don’t go earlier than necessary. Don’t watch other bouts that you are not a part of unless it is absolutely necessary. Focus on yourself.  Make it about you, and after you are done, be the best friend you can. Cheer on their successes, just don’t watch them as they happen when competing yourself.  

While I write this I feel that I might be contradicting my own belief that fencing is about camaraderie. But it is not really a contradiction. A brief cheer and support is always good, and I am not advocating against this. What I mean here is often fencers, especially inexperienced ones, will go way beyond a little cheer and support. They come earlier, spend a lot of time with their friends and in a way hurt their own preparation, warm up, focus, and as a result add to the overall fatigue. They then  perform much worse than they would otherwise do.

Look Away from the Un-Natural Light

It’s no question that we tire more when there is an artificial light, which is unfortunately typical in fencing venues.

Unfortunately, being under artificial light for an entire day is a slow drain on your energy reserves. You may not realize how the lack of natural light is affecting you until it’s too late.  Unlike physical exhaustion when you can feel your legs and feet hurt, when it comes to light, you would not know that.

How to Combat This: Whenever possible try to go outside or at least to the area with windows if they are present in the venue.

Fatigue can be a beast, but if you anticipate it, prepare for it, and make good choices, you and your child might just create an advantage over their opponents.