Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Ownership and Responsibility as Fencers

Ownership and Responsibility as Fencers
Silhouetted electricity pylon grid

Who owns your performance in fencing? 

How much responsibility does your coach/club/family have for your success?

What responsibility does the fencer have to their club, to their fellow fencers, to their support network, and to themselves?

In the Venn diagram of a fencing club, the fencer is necessarily at the center – aren’t they? At least, that’s the simplest way to look at it. After all, the fencer is the most visible part of the whole process as they stand up on the piste and go head to head with their opponent. The club, the family, the teammates, the coach – everyone is cheering for them to evolve and grow, becoming the best version of themselves in the sport. 

This isn’t just the case with fencing, it’s the case with all individual sports. There’s a deep support network of people who are pulling together to get this one person to where they are. It can make it seem like that individual athlete is getting all of this energy poured into them, like everyone else is building a foundation and they are the top of the mountain. 

It’s not that simple, however. It’s not even close to that linear. 

A power grid of connection

Fencing, and again all individual sports, are much more complex than a simple pyramid. The fencer is not the top of the mountain. Not at all! Rather, we should think of the fencer as one part of a complex web of people. No one is at the center, and everyone is connected.

Fencing at a club is like a power grid, where each node gives energy to other elements of the grid as well as consumes and propagates the energy received from others. The energy goes both to the fencer and out from the fencer. 

Fencers are not just taking and taking from the club, they have a duty to give back to the club as well. When they do, it all works much better. Consistent, conscious support has to flow from every direction, not just to one individual. 

What are fencers responsible for?

Fences are responsible for a lot of things, and not just their own points on the strip. When you train, you have a lot of responsibility towards everybody in the club. This goes for the other fencers, for the coach, and for the staff.

Your behavior in the club and in competition affects other people, both in good ways and in bad ways. If a fencer is goofing around and distracting the other students in a class, that’s negatively affecting those fencers and their ability to achieve their own goals. When this happens, a fencer is patently causing harm to their teammates.  

If you do drills half way, sloppily and without focusing on the details of the exercises, you will encourage sloppiness and lack of focus in the people around you. The rising tide lifts all ships, but on the flip side the ebbing tide can get all the ships stuck in the mud. We naturally key our own performance off of the performance that the people around us are doing. This is why it’s so important for fencers to surround themselves with people who take training seriously and are driven to succeed. 

Imagine this scenario – You trained for a NAC, working hard to get the last bit of qualification you needed to secure a spot in the Fencing Summer Nationals. You’ve reached your goal, and the next big competition for you is now several months away. You rightfully are excited and want to take just a week or two with your foot off the gas to allow yourself to breathe a little. 

So you go into class the following week and goof around a little. During drills, you make some jokes and run through them sloppily. Your feet drag as you come back from a water break. When other fencers are on the strip and the coach is using them to illustrate some points about timing, you chat up the fencer next to you instead of paying close attention. 

One of those fencers on the strip is a teammate of yours who hasn’t qualified for SN yet. They decided to go the regional points route to get there and have their best chance regional competition this coming weekend. You don’t realize this because you’ve been so focused on your own path, and in your mind qualification is done. The fencer doesn’t make a big deal of it, and they try to keep training even though other fencers are clearly distracted by your lack of focus. Even though they are working hard to focus, it’s not so easy to find that flow when other people are being a distraction. 

Going into the weekend, your teammate is now not as prepared as they should be. While that’s not all your fault, you certainly didn’t help them to reach their goals because you were in your own little bubble. 

All of this is not to shame any fencer. We all make mistakes, and we all are naturally focused on our own progress over the progress of others. Of course we are! However, that does not mean that this isn’t a point of improvement. While we are not responsible for the progress of others, we are responsible for our contribution to the environment and how that contribution either does or does not support success.

Leadership coach Rasheed Ogunlaru puts it well when he says this: “You will rarely make wise decisions if you surround yourself with fools.” 

This could not be more true, but let’s take it one step further – don’t be one of the fools who surrounds another fencer and slows down their progress. Though you might feel as though you’ve got your training in hand, that doesn’t mean your classmates don’t need the time to focus in order to progress forward. 

Taking responsibility is freeing

Though it can seem, and falsely, that they are only in charge of their own fencing development, to think that way actually handicaps the individual fencer and prevents them from growing into the best fencer they can be.

If you do not take your training seriously and responsibly, you drag everybody down: yourself to start with, but also your teammates, your coaches, your parents. If you are late (constantly) to the class, if you are talking while your coach explains some technique or when your teammates are running through some exercises, you are taking precious time from everybody.

This doesn’t just apply to fencing training specifically, it also applies to competitions and any time that you might be engaged in fencing activities. Your success in fencing, and frankly in everything you do in your life, starts with you taking ownership of your actions and responsibility for them.

If you’re struggling to stay focused during training, then ask yourself these questions:

  • What is going on in your fencing that makes you distracted? 
  • Is there something about your training that makes you uncomfortable?
  • Are there structures you could put in place to help you focus? (ie training further from certain easily distracting fencers, doing focus exercises before class, etc.)
  • What factors are affecting your focus? Are you nervous? Bored? Intimidated? Frustrated?

When fencers struggle with focus and taking responsibility for their role in the fencing class, it usually has to do with something that’s off internally. Figuring out what’s going on will help these fencers to find a better way to deal with whatever emotions they’re having that drives this kind of behavior. If you can’t help but distract your fellow fencing students, then odds are you want to distract yourself for some reason. 

What’s really surprising is how taking responsibility for your actions doesn’t add more to your plate or stress you out, it actually is freeing. When you are intentional about the way that you are interacting with others in a class environment or at a competition, you feel really good about your contribution to the community that’s also supporting you. This has a way of taking a burden off of your shoulders, and it fuels your own drive to become a better fencer. 

A healthy training environment will help you to grow as well, not just in the times when you’re under pressure to perform in a specific competition, but all the time.

P.S., Yesterday, Columbia Fencing Head Coach Michael Aufrichtig gave a seminar at AFM. One of the main messages in his talk was the importance of teamwork and the individual’s contribution to the common effort. It couldn’t be better timing.


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  1. R

    You are getting *very* Zen – and *very* right. If Coach Aufrichtig didn’t show you his teams’ pre-meet spirit circle, I hope your students find a clip showing same.

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