It’s ok if you didn’t learn the secrets of the strip when you were quarantined at home.
It’s ok if you didn’t fence every day when the world was turned upside down.
It’s ok if you didn’t level up your fencing prowess during lockdown.
It’s ok if you didn’t perfect your parry during a global crisis.
It’s ok if you never once picked up your foil or epee or sabre since March of 2020.
As we come to the other side of lockdown and the start of a new season, there is a lot of pressure on everyone to be some kind of best version of themselves. It’s truly difficult, and it’s an issue that we expect will be even more prominent and challenging in the months to come as the fall and winter offer us new challenges in the pandemic.
What does success mean?
We have seen many fencers that feel like they didn’t grow enough during the pandemic. They feel that their fencing stagnated at best, or more likely that their fencing deteriorated. Even more than that, they feel like they have lost something important to them that they cannot regain. They don’t know which way is up anymore because their path forward now has a curve that turns the wrong way. They can’t figure out which way to turn. What’s more, there is the looming uncertainty that is so difficult to deal with.
The problem here is how we measure success. In fencing, we of course want to get better so that we can take out our opponent as efficiently as possible. It’s a very simple prospect – get the point before the other person on the strip gets the point. The nuance of how that happens is the hard part.
Improvement is absolutely necessary and important, but not for the reason of winning medals. It is more than that. Success is not winning medals. As much as we may have cheered the Olympians this summer and as much as we cheer our competitors at Nationals, those podiums are not the end-all-be-all of fencing.
What if we flipped this on its head? Instead of thinking that in order to be successful in fencing we got points in fencing, what if we measured it in our ability to come back from behind?
This is something that we saw so much in the Olympics this summer. The fencers who got to the top of the biggest podium in the world were often those fencers who were underdogs. No one expected them to win, and it was their resilience that got them to their most treasured goal. Getting knocked down wasn’t the problem, it was how they got back up again. We’ll see this play out now with those top fencers who didn’t perform how they expected to. If they didn’t get the medal, what will they do now? I can tell you with absolute certainty that they won’t roll over and go to bed. They’ll get back up on the strip.
Mental health matters
No one could have missed the theme of mental health over medals in the Olympics this year. Though the press that flurried over Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka may have now fallen into the recesses of the news cycle, but they started an important conversation.
This year was tough on everyone. Preserving our emotional and mental wellbeing should be of central importance, because without those things we cannot enjoy fencing anyway. If you’re so stressed out that you can’t take joy in the sport, is it worth it? The best competitors are those who stay in the moment on the strip with the freedom that comes from wanting to be there. To become that free, it has to be totally your own choice.
We encourage you to take stock of your fencing and take the pressure off of yourself. The weight of obligation isn’t necessary to become the fencer you want to be. In fact, it will hold you back.
What was so wonderful about the moment that Biles stepped back from the competition is the way we saw that joy for the sport come out in her. She was jubilant as she cheered her teammates on from the stands. She took such incredible delight in competing in the events that she chose, even as they didn’t rise to the expectations of the world. She did it on her own terms, and fencers can too.
Particularly after the last year, we must stay grounded in our own mental health. The truth is that we can put a lot of pressure to get back to normal, but that is only going to backfire and pull our fencing down. The way to get to that wonderful feeling of being on the strip is to start where we are and accept our limitations.
All of this comes down to the one theme – if Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka can prioritize their mental health, then so can you. They have the right idea about meeting the moment where it is, and both are all the more champions because they made the choice to prioritize themselves.
You are still a fencer
There is no “right way” to have been a fencer over the last year and a half. In fact, there is no “right way” to have survived. What matters is that we are here now, we have to remember that there were so many people in the world who are not here. That we are able to fence now, that is a real gift.
Whatever you did or didn’t do during the pandemic, there is value in all of it. There is value in having made it at all. You grew and got stronger as a person, no matter how you weathered the storms of the last year and a half. How does that relate to fencing? That growth that you got through the pandemic, even if it never once involved you picking up a sword, that will still help you to be a better fencer. You know more of yourself now than you did before, and with that knowledge, you can understand more of what your needs in fencing are.
We cannot emphasize enough that you are under no obligation to have done anything more as a fencer during the pandemic than you did. You are still just as much of a fencer if you were overwhelmed by everything that happened and so could not bear to unzip your fencing bag. We are already seeing this rush to judgement in the wider society as the world goes back to something like the normal we had before. That kind of judgement has no place in fencing. In fact, it’s counterproductive if we want our sport to pick up and grow again.
This is also interesting in the context of the Olympics. Thomas Bach, the current head of the International Olympic Committee, is still listed as a fencer every time he steps up to the podium. His last World Championship was in 1979, and we can assume that he has not fenced in many years. He is still a fencer. That’s true of each and every one of us too.
Come back to fencing
If you feel disconnected from fencing, ashamed of how your form is now or what your coach will say, we urge you to come back. Even if you left fencing long before the pandemic and have been missing it for the last ten years, we urge you to come back.
Right now, we are all just so happy to have you! It doesn’t matter who you were before or what you think you should have been doing. Whoever you are, however much you fenced or didn’t fencing in the last eighteen months, you are welcome in the fencing community.
Maybe it’s time to change the way that you look at success in fencing. For the moment, success for you in fencing might look like picking up your foil or epee or sabre again. The hardest part will be the beginning, just as it was when you first started fencing.
Putting down your passion for this sport to deal with the host of emotions and realities that swirled all around us, that does not make you a bad fencer. It makes you a fencer who made it through. Fencing like mad all through the pandemic as a way of making sense of the huge emotions that were going on, well that’s what you needed and we’re so happy you made it through too. It might seem challenging to hold those two truths in the same space, but it’s what we need to do in order to help our community grow and go forward.
We are all in this together as a fencing community. We always were, but now more than ever we need to meet our fencers where they are. Lockdown was hard on everyone. What that looked like for each of us is highly individual. We must all work now to stay from judging each other, no matter what we did or didn’t do.