Most of us brag about the wins that we achieve, but we ignore the losses that cripple our confidence. It’s a vicious cycle that turns us around and around, pulling us away from the real potential that we possess. It should not destroy a fencer to lose a match, it should boost them.
This is important in fencing of course, but learning to handle loss in an effective way is a translatable skill that we can apply to all parts of our lives. There is always a sting to a loss, but it should never be so devastating that it keeps us from continuing to move forward. The decision of whether to keep going must be based on our own empowered ability to make choices.
Failure is everywhere
Think about it in terms of social media, because that’s something that just about everyone can relate to.
- We see the graduation photo, not the long hours in the library or the rejection letters from colleges that didn’t accept the student.
- We see the winner of a talent competition on TV, not all the times they auditioned but didn’t make the cut.
- We see the victor on the podium at the Olympics, not the hundreds of brutal losses they endured along the way.
Sure, when someone gets to the top, we often look back retrospectively and find inspiration in all off the times that they got back up and were resilient in the face of defeat, but no one was looking when they actually experienced that defeat. They went through that difficult time in the quiet, perhaps thinking of quitting or wondering if they would be able to come back from the emotional toll that this loss took on them.
There is a sadness to this, but there’s also a real problem because not seeing this means that others don’t know the challenging truths about the path through to that pinnacle. We all lose sight of the tremendous worth that lies in all paths. Many more fencers don’t ever get a gold medal at the World Championships than will ever make it there, and their stories are worthwhile too.
There is failure all around us. All the time. Everywhere we go. By the very nature of competitive achievement, there can only be one person at the top. What makes them stand out is the fact that they have gone beyond everyone else to get there. That’s not to say that there is any less value in the people who lose – quite the opposite. Most of the time we will not reach the goal, and so we must find value in that loss. It can be strengthening. It can be fulfilling. It can even be exciting.
We cannot get past this simple truth – failure surrounds us. And that’s not a bad thing.
Shame is the problem
Bragging about victory emphasizes the wrong thing. When you pour all of that emphasis into the victory without putting the right amount of emphasis on the defeat, it makes the victory hollow. It was not easy to get here. We earn every bit of sweat and emotional distress that goes into both the losses and the wins, so we should give ourselves the credit for both!
A valiant loss that was hard fought and played through with good sportsmanship should be a proud moment. It should feel good to lose if you are putting the emphasis on throwing yourself into the match with your whole effort and your whole heart. Of course the satisfaction will not be the same as if you won and got to the top of that podium, but it should not feel like a blade through the heart to fail.
One big problem here, in fact THE big problem here, is that we are ashamed to lose. Why? Here are a few reasons.
- Parents put pressure on fencers to win
- Coaches put pressure on fencers to win
- Fencers feel that the stakes are overly high
- Fencers place undue pressure on themselves
- The culture of sports emphasizes winning
All of these lead to more shame on fencers who don’t win a match or who don’t place highly at a competition. The zeal to become the best can easily overtake a fencer and push them far too far, because they aren’t allowed to grow through the loss. Every single match, no matter the outcome, is a valuable match. It’s valuable because it’s fun and fulfilling just to be moving up and down the strip with an opponent. It’s valuable because it’s a learning opportunity. There are too many reasons to list here that each match is worth fencing, and those same reasons mean there is no place for shame in any fencing match.
Shame is the enemy that prevents us from realizing our potential, whatever that potential may be.
A story of embracing doubt
At a fencing competition recently, a mom ran towards me with a request of help. Her son did not perform well in the pools and did not want to continue through to the DEs because he was “so terrible at fencing.” His parents tried everything to talk him into continuing, but he was totally demoralized and felt out of his depth. It wasn’t that he could not continue physically, it was that the mental toll of loss wore him down to the point of quitting. His mother was desperate for me to convince him to continue with the competition and not to quit.
I took him aside and had a discussion with him, in the hopes that I could help him see the value in himself.
“If you give up now, what you will remember from this day is that you gave circumstances control over you.”
He stood there for a few moments, contemplating what direction he would take in the situation. Though he may not realize it just yet, this situation is one that he will encounter over and over again throughout his life. Young people are only just beginning to learn this, while those of us with a few more years are more stuck in our ways. That’s why it’s so important to open their eyes as early as we can to resilience.
“The easiest thing to do is quit, but the most difficult thing to do is to recover from quitting. What you’re feeling now, that will be long forgotten if you keep going. Instead, you’ll feel proud of yourself for trying. If you quit, then what you feel right now will not go away.”
Again, he contemplated this. Sometimes something has to sit with you for a while to allow you to digest it, especially when emotions are running high. This young man was ashamed of his performance in pools, and he didn’t want to feel that hurt again should he experience more loss in the DE. That’s understandable, but it’s also counterproductive in the long run.
In the end, he went on to compete in his first direct elimination round, winning his first bout. His parents were thrilled of course, but the most important thing was that he didn’t stay in that feeling of loss. He grew through this experience, finding value in even the hardest moments. He’s a teenager and would never say out loud to me how proud he was of the way he came back from that loss, but that’s the way of it with teenagers!
Whether a fencer decides to keep going on in the sport or whether they decide to step away and go do something else with their time and energy, this should never be decided based on a win or a loss. It must come from something beyond the emotional rollercoaster that is naturally part of the cycle of competition.
The hurt of not winning your match is a short-lived pain. Truly, it will only last for a little while if we keep on going. This is so beautifully illustrated in the story above, but if you think back to your own experience with loss, you’ll see this same thing. When you keep pushing through, you grasp onto emotions that are far more potent. You become empowered because you have gone past the thing that you thought you could not go past.
Even more than just the sting of quitting in the midst of emotion, there is the way that bleeds into other parts of your life. There is no such thing as an isolated experience, so if you quit this one thing, then you are reinforcing to yourself that your emotions are in control of you. If a situation can have dominance over you, then how can you achieve your goals? There will always be obstacles, no matter if it is school or fencing or work or relationships.
If a student fails a math test, should they quit math? No, obviously not. They will keep on going because they have to, at least for a while. There is a necessary inclination to study and try again because they must pass onto the next grade. Kids cannot just stop going to school the way they can stop a sport, but they can give up trying. This is why learning to take charge in situations that feel out of our emotional control is critical. It may not seem as though persevering past a fencing match loss is a huge deal, but it very much is.
The empowered choice is the one in which you are not afraid. When the fear of losing is so much that it seems like the stab of a sword through the heart, that’s when we lose all of our autonomy. Instead of thinking of a loss as a devastating problem that is impossible to overcome, we must think of a loss as a single piece of a much larger puzzle.