Injuries are unavoidable in any sport, not just in fencing. When you’re using your body, things are going to happen to it. Generally these things are along the lines of pulled muscles, sprained ankles, or simple broken bones. Bruises in any sport are unavoidable, just like they are in school PE. Everyone has gotten hurt a little bit when doing physical activities, and many of us had some injury downtime in our sports.
The daily injuries are one thing. You can still train and compete with bruises or sore muscles. When a bigger injury like a sprain or a pulled muscle happens, it can seriously impede our training and competition. What do you do when you can’t train anymore because you’ve got an injury? Worse yet, what if you are going to miss a competition because of an injury?
There are two ways that you can look at thing. Either you dwell on the unfairness of the situation, or you use it as an opportunity to grow as a fencer.
How injuries help us grow
What a strange concept! How is it that injuries can help anyone grow? It seems to be counter-intuitive, because the downtime that a fencer has to take because they are injured necessarily forces them to stop training as they have been. However, it’s definitely possible, and in some ways the growth during downtime is unique and important.
Downtime for an injury is going to force a fencer to think instead of act. Because you cannot get up on the strip and do things yourself, you now are pushed to sit back and stay out of it. That time is often wasted by athletes, who are overwhelmed with the emotional pain of not being able to do what they love to do. If, instead of feeling sorry for themselves, an athlete turns their attention to developing the mind, then this time can be actually a powerhouse for growth. Different growth than if you were fencing over and over again.
When we talk about being a well rounded, formidable athlete, that necessarily involves layers of understanding of and mastery of the sport. The athletes who are the most elite in the world have a depth of understanding of their sport from many different angles. Sure, they get up and practice over and over again, but they also think. Fencing in particular is of course about the mind as much as it is about the body. This means that forced downtime due to a physical injury gives that fencer a chance to only focus on the mental acuity that they must have to win. It creates a depth to the fencer if they will take advantage of it.
Injuries necessarily create a situation in which the fencer has to overcome pain. And while we of course would never wish pain on anyone, on the flip side pain is a necessary part of life. A fencer who must overcome physical pain and emotional anguish is going to get better. They are called “growing pains” for a reason 😉
Don’t get behind too much
If an injury forces you to step back and take a break from fencing, the key is not to get behind too much.
When you completely stop training, form and fine motor skills are going to deteriorate quickly. Much more quickly than you would think. While fencing is like riding a bike because you’ll get back into the groove of it when you come back from an injury, the learning curve that you have to climb when you come back will be very steep if you just sit back and do nothing at all during your downtime. Your form from before the injury will not be as good for a very long time if you just check out of training while you are getting over the injury.
The most important thing is to talk to your doctor and follow their advice. But when you are discussing what you can and cannot do, think outside of the box. Maybe you sprained your wrist and so should not pick up your sword for two weeks. Can you still pantomime your fencing movements without holding anything? If you pulled a muscle in your leg, you might not be able to jump back and forth on the strip, but can you practice the movements slowly? These are things to talk to your doctor about when you are discussing your plan of care. Many of your fencing activities will be on hold, but talk through modifications that will still let you train while you recover.
Make your injury downtime work to your benefit.
Do not miss your classes, at least not any that you absolutely don’t have to miss. Because you are not active in the class does not mean that you are not getting a lot out of it! You can still do a lot of fencing training when you are not able to do your traditional training.
First of all, you can watch the exercises and run them in your head. Be an active observer. Take out your fencing notebook and write down what the coach is saying, pay attention to what the other members of the class are doing. Fencing classes sometimes go fast and we don’t have time to digest what’s happening, so when you have space to watch what’s happening, you also have space to ask questions that you couldn’t ask before! You have time to think of questions that you couldn’t think of before! You can learn a great deal from observing a class.
You can also analyze your classmates. Thinking deeply about how you fence, about how they fence, and how you would approach them during a bout if you were to take them on. Fencing is such a mental sport, and when you have time for that deep analysis because you can’t fence because of an injury, well that allows you to develop as a fencer.
Another major way that you can stretch yourself if you have an injury is to volunteer to ref some of the class bouts. This is a win-win for all because the teammates will stop arguing over each point and you will learn more about fencing and phrases and situations. Refereeing is a skill that is not only important for fencing because we of course need referees, it’s an important skill because it makes fencers better fencers. You will notice things as referee that you won’t notice when you are fencing yourself. It’s kind of an insider’s outside perspective. You can come in to open fencing time at your fencing club and practice as a ref too! You’ll find out that you will learn so much from refereeing that will inform your fencing.
Even though you can’t participate in classes the way that you would before, don’t let that stop you from attending if you’re injured. This goes for competitions too, especially if they are local and don’t require travel. If you get injured before a local RYC or even just a local tournament that you were planning to attend – go anyway! Watch the competitors and learn from them, because you will most surely see them again in competition. You might not be able to get onto the podium at this tournament, but next time you’ll be in a much better position to get up there!
Do your private lessons as well. Your coach will know lots of ways to improve your fencing training, even if you are sitting in a chair. Your private lesson may not be the same as it usually is, but realize that it is no less valuable.
Keeping the pace of your fencing training and season up while you are injured will keep you in the routine as well. Don’t let an injury throw off your groove more than it has to!
Never try to force recovery
One final caution about injury downtime from fencing is DO NOT try to force your recovery. You run a high risk of adding an additional injury if you try to make it happen before the time is right. This is something that we cannot emphasize enough. If you start off with a small tear in a muscle or a minor sprain and just try to “push through the pain” or “be tough” about it too early and your body has not healed, you are going to make a little injury to be a big one. This happens all the time in sports and it’s truly tragic. What is at first a minor injury that might keep you out for two weeks can quickly change into a major injury that requires more intense intervention from a doctor and that takes you out for many weeks. It is never, ever worth it to push training or competition with an injury that has not healed.
Your doctor is going to give you things to do most likely. Ice it so often, or do stretches or exercises. Sometimes these can be a pain themselves to keep up with! Don’t be tempted to skimp out on them. If your doctor says that soaking that ankle in a hot bath of epsom salts twice a day for a half an hour is what you need to do, then get wet. If you are told by your doctor to ice your knee for three hours a day, then get cold. If the doctor says to stretch for an hour a day, then please just get through it. Most injuries that athletes get are common and we know how to deal with them, which means that we know how to fix them.
You can of course always watch fencing videos if you can’t do anything else! There are no excuses that you have no time – you definitely have plenty of time because of the injury.
The bottom line is – do as much as you can so that when you are over your injury you’ll be more tactical. Your recovery time will be shorter if you follow the doctor’s rules and you don’t have to feel like the time has run beneath your feet. Take advantage of it! Be innovative! Injuries can make us better fencers if we use them the right way.