For the most part, the things in our lives only have as much power as we choose to give to them. When you face an opponent, you have options about how much weight you give to that opponent.
What you bring to the match is not just about your skill and technique, it’s also very much about how you perceive your opponent. If you think that it’s impossible to win against an opponent because they are bigger, stronger, faster, and more experienced than you are, then you’re probably going to lose. Even if they are all of those things, you’re not going to fare any better against them because you focus on those dimensions.
On the other hand, if you can disentangle your perception of the opponent from the actions that you’re taking, you have a much better chance of winning against them. Even if you don’t win, you’ll have a much better bout that shows your skills and in which you level up.
The physical component to fencing and athletics in general is certainly important, but the mental component is a driving factor of the physical reality. One goal that we must have in fencing is to control the automatic response that our body and brain has to the outside stimulation. In this case, we’re thinking of a much better opponent as that outside stimulation.
The state of readiness
When your body perceives a threat or is readying for something important to happen, the stress system turns on, or becomes aroused.
A fundamental concept in sports psychology is arousal regulation. It’s simply our ability to organize and control the mental and physical relationship between stress, brain activity, physical movement, and performance. The more we can learn to manage these aspects of our natural reaction to what’s being thrown at us, the better we will be able to get our bodies and minds to move and perform in the ways that we want them to.
When you face an opponent who you perceive to be much better than you are, your stress levels are going to go up while your ability to manage your physical body and mental focus is going to go down. Your nervous system becomes aroused or switched on, and you’re no longer able to manage your reactions as effectively as you would if your nervous system were in its usual state.
The inability to regulate that arousal response is the reason we see fencers do some of the following in competition:
- Score point after point in one period, then nothing in the next.
- Perform incredibly well in practice, but not in competition
- Struggle against weaker opponents but rise to the occasion against stronger opponents
Learning to manage your nervous system response is a skill that has to be practiced before you get to the tournament. For some people, it’s easy to do and for others it’s a huge challenge. For everyone, it’s absolutely possible to improve this aspect of performance.
When fencers don’t train their minds and bodies to respond effectively to uncontrollable variables, they are putting themselves in a vulnerable position.
There are two sides of the state of readiness, or arousal level, that a fencer feels when they are put on the strip – the psychological side and the physical side.
The psychological side is all of that churning that you’re feeling in your mind. It’s the twinging of your brain, the nervousness, the trepidation, the frustration, the aggression, and the anger. It’s the excitement. The rushing thoughts and frantic feelings of elation that alternate with anxiety is the brain’s response to the nervous system coming to attention.
On the other end of the spectrum is the physiological response. What you feel in your body when something exciting is happening is also triggered by your nervous system, though it’s felt in your muscles and your organs. This is the butterflies in your stomach, the nausea, the increase in the pulse rate, the thump tump of your heart, rapid breathing, and the increase in temperature. Things like sweaty palms and dry mouth are all part of the physical reaction to the stress of sport.
It’s not that we want these to go away. On the contrary, we actually want some of those nervous system reactions to stick around. There’s a sweet spot of arousal that puts you in the best place to have your best performance.
When your response goes too high, you’ll be overly nervous and lose focus. When your response doesn’t go high enough, you’ll be flat and won’t be able to concentrate as you should.
A real-world example of rethinking the opponent
At a competition not too long ago, a dad came up to me after his son beat a rival who was much more highly ranked than he was. The opponent was in the top 5 in the country.
Naturally, I was excited for both the dad and the fencer. The dad was really blown away. He commented to me, “Wow, that’s a top fencer in the whole United States! That boy is in the top 5!”
I replied to him, “I don’t see the number on his chest. All I see is a boy in a white uniform.”
I didn’t say this to be glib or to take the shine off of his son’s win, but rather to challenge him to rethink the perspective of putting these larger-than-life opponents on such a pedestal. Yes, it’s incredibly wonderful to take on such a top fencer and best them in a match. However, if I were to talk about rankings to all of the fencers that I guide through competition, I would be doing them a definite disservice. I would be holding them back.
After the pools are over, ranking, rating and seeding are totally meaningless. It does no good to spin around in circles about what level the opponent is at, what rank they hold, or what they have done in the past. If a fencer has met a particular opponent on the strip in the past, that information can certainly be useful and important going forward. It can inform their fencing in some cases, but most often it becomes a distraction.
Rather than working hard to bring in all of the information that a fencer might have given away in previous performances, meet the opponent in the here and now. Fencing ratings and even podium finishes capture a single moment in time. Part of the magic of sport in general is that it’s fleeting – on any given day, any fencer could perform in a myriad of ways.
My advice is to always let go of the ranks and the seeding. The opponent is a nameless fencer in a white uniform, nothing more.
The “stronger” can fall to the “weaker”
It’s not uncommon to see a fencer who is “stronger” lose in a bout against a fencer who is “weaker”. This goes all the way up to the highest levels of fencing – the Olympics.
In the 2020 Olympics, Japan took Gold in men’s team epee. This team was nowhere near the top, and no one could have expected them to have that kind of finish. They beat France, the top-ranked team in the world, in the quarter-finals.
What would have happened if they had focused on the rankings of the French team in those bouts? They wouldn’t have been competitive! Rather than focus on the accolades of their opponents, they had to go up there and let their training take control. It was the first gold medal in fencing for Japan, and the first epee medal.
In an interview about the win, Satoru Uyama said “It hasn’t begun to sink in yet. There was some concern about how well I can execute, but I wasn’t nervous. That I appeared to be vexing my opponents up to that point confirmed that what I was doing worked. So I stuck with that approach in the final.”
Notice that he isn’t focused on the rank of his opponents or the challenge ahead of him – he’s focused on what’s happening on the strip right in front of him.
You never know how the opponent feels that day. Maybe something happened with their training, maybe the timezone change is making them sluggish, maybe they’re having a bad day because their math teacher gave them a hard time yesterday or because their morning bagel didn’t agree with their stomach. There are so many variables here.
Certainly, in the case of the Japanese epee team, there is something about fighting for gold at home. That gives them a distinct advantage. It’s not enough for them to win without the right focus, though. If the Japanese would not been performing at their peak, there’s no way they would have been able to overcome the other teams’ advantage.
Even if you’re having a clumsy day, maybe they’re having a clulmsier day. All you have to do is light up the machine more than they do.
Don’t lose the bout before you lose the bout
The opponent in the white jacket will almost certainly win the bout if you go in determined that they are better than you are.
Yes, this person can beat you because they are stronger or more experienced than you, but if you assume that there is no way to stand up to them, you already lost the bout. You can lose the bout before you even step foot on the piste, and it’s something that happens all too often. It’s truly a sad thing when we see a fencer think themselves out of a competitive bout!
You never know what the variables will be ahead of time. No one, not even the fencers themselves, can know all of the factors that affect one individual’s performance. Rather than trying to analyze and think about it so much, turn your attention to the jacket. It’s just a fencer in a white jacket – nothing more.
The heart of the message is this – let’s have some fun and release the pressure, because that’s what fencing is.