Art of Fencing, Art of Life

Passing Time During Long Fencing Tournaments with Intention

Passing Time During Long Fencing Tournaments with Intention

Fencing matches are fast-paced, quick to go forward, and exciting. We focus our minds and our bodies to become this tight little ball of explosive power when we are on the strip, a power that only has a few minutes to make an impact on the opponent. 

That compressed length of time is highly exciting, but when competitive fencers get into the thick of it, they often find themselves spending hours upon end without fencing. There is a huge amount of downtime during fencing competitions for competitive fencers. It’s in stark contrast to the intensity of competition.

This isn’t a thing that we think too much about for the most part. After all, we’ve all got plenty of other matches to watch, not to mention smart devices to scroll through. It’s an issue that we should think about, however. Not just because we want to be frugal with and conscious of our resources, but also because changing how we think about this can represent a happier and more fulfilling experience all the way around. 

Waiting . . .  waiting . . . waiting

In fencing, there’s a lot of “hurry up and wait” that happens. 

Hurry up and get your weapons checked

Hurry up and warm-up and stretch. 

Hurry to check your seeding. 

Hurry to get to the strip where your bout is.

In a large venue, some of this could take a while, not to mention it could be exhausting as you’re carrying all of your gear around. 

Do all of this, and then wait some more. 

Wait for the previous bout to end, and yours to begin. 

Wait for the scores to be released. 

Wait for the strip to be cleared. 

After registration, or after someone on your team has lost, or when you’re waiting for the second round of seeding to compete, or even when you’ve finished for the day an area waiting for your teammates to get to their own rounds so that you can cheer them on, you’ll often find yourself with little to nothing to do. 

In other words, there are lots of times when there’s a whole lot of waiting happening and not a lot of fencing. 

This extends to travel time as well. The layover between flights is usually just long enough to get nothing done. Time on the plane is either so long that it’s exhausting, or so short that it’s hard to get your head into something substantive. 

For competitions that are within driving distance, everyone in the car but the driver has all of this free time that they don’t have anything to do with. The inside of a car is cramped, and the motion makes it difficult to read or watch things for many people without getting carsick.

All of this adds up to hours and hours of time that’s essentially wasted. It’s not really wasted, as it’s a means to the end of competing in fencing. It runs out that, for the most part, we’re just ok with all of this waiting. It comes down to being a thing we’re willing to deal with in the pursuit of this other goal. 

Mental and physical preparation should extend to downtime

Part of the training of a fencer must be to prepare both mentally and physically for the intensity of a fencing competition. These two sides – mental and physical – don’t stop because of downtime. 

Honestly, most fencers think of this time as something that’s unavoidable. You can’t really DO anything with it, so it’s a reality that we live with. It’s hard to prepare for this because it is always changing! 

It might seem like it’s easier to just kind of allow yourself to roll along with it, rather than doing something really meaningful with the time. Downtime shouldn’t always be productive in the sense that you are actually getting something done. However, it also shouldn’t be an afterthought. Whatever you do with this time, it should be something intentional that’s helping you out in some way. 

Mental and physical preparation can take many forms, and they should be tailored to the needs of the moment. In this way, understanding downtime is about understanding your own needs. Whatever works for you is the path you should take. 

Understand different kinds of downtime

Downtime is fundamentally different when we’re talking about downtime before the pools begin and downtime at the pinnacle of direct elimination. The substantive difference between these two is important to understand, because what you do in each one will be slightly different. 

  • In the car
  • In an airport/on a plane
  • At the hotel
  • At the venue
  • Before the competition
  • Between bouts
  • After the competition, waiting for results
  • After the competition, waiting for teammates/siblings
  • Traveling home

The high level of emotions coursing through fencers during competition are nothing to sneeze at, but the go up and down depending on where things are in the competitive cycle. The same ups and downs go for the physical experience of the competition. 

Adaptability to meet the needs throughout the arc of competition will help fencers maximize the time that they spend in downtime

Ideas for fencing downtime

What should you do while you’re waiting to pass the time? There are actually a lot of options for you that don’t involve whiling away the time staring at the ceiling or out of the window. 

During the competition, the most important thing is to keep yourself ready.

Here are ten ideas to keep your body and mind where it should be during fencing downtime,

Warm your muscles

There are so many idle points on the day of the fencing competition. It’s easy for your muscles to go cold and for you to lose the warmup if there is an extended wait time between bouts. Cold muscles will definitely impede your ability to fence effectively. 

If you have a long time to wait (ie. second flight or DE’s), plan out a time for you to rewarm your muscles. This is essential as it will keep you from going into your next bout unprepared and cold. Going into the bout cold will mean that half of your bout is spent just warming those muscles back up. This makes you more prone to injuries as well as making the bout harder. 

Muscle stiffness is also an issue during travel. If you’re traveling by air, it’s important to walk around while waiting for your flight to keep your muscles loose. Don’t be afraid to find a corner and do some jumping jacks or stretches. This is not the moment to be self-conscious! For driving, leave time to stop regularly and get out and stretch. Stiffness from travel can follow you into the competition, even if it’s the next day. 

Any bit of downtime that you have should be spent moving if you can. There are even stretches that you can do in your seat while flying or in the passenger seat if you’re in a car. 

Listen While You Wait 

The echoing noise inside a competition hall can be incredibly loud and distracting. Even if you’re not highly sensitive to cacophonous noise, it can wear on you. 

The clanging of the swords, yelling of the fighters, the buzzes and whistles, and the constant hum of conversations tends to reverberate through the empty rooms with high ceilings where fencing competitions are held in. 

A great way to drown it out and focus on your mental game is to pop in some headphones to mute the sound as best you can. This works during travel as well, or even in the hotel room. There is something about closing your eyes and submerging yourself in sound that is refreshing and recharging. 

What to listen to, though? If you need to zone out, try listening to nature sounds or lofi beats. Both of these options are low key and can be turned up loudly without overwhelming your eardrums. We want to push all of the noise away, not add to it. 

If you’re looking for an improvement in your focus, try a guided meditation. You can find these for free all over YouTube or included in your music subscription service. Just type in “guided meditation” and you’ll find a huge array. You can choose a focus meditation, a calming meditation, a meditation for energy – literally anything you need. 

And of course, your favorite music that helps you to focus or recalibrate!

Noise-canceling headphones are a bonus if you are competing often, but regular headphones will work just fine too. 

Watch Videos 

Along these same lines, you can effectively drown out the competition around you and give your brain a break without draining your mental capacity. It’s ok to zone out and get lost in a video. 

Some competitors have a favorite movie or scene that puts them into the right mindset for competition. They watch it over and over until it becomes a thing that clicks them into the right headspace. Maybe it’s a classic like Rocky or a Bruce Lee movie. It might be your favorite comedy TV show – the Office or Community. You could be the person who decompresses your brain with cat videos. Whatever your choice is, the idea here is to disengage from the world around you to allow your mind to live in that nothing space. 

It’s better to go with something that’s familiar and doesn’t require a lot of thought. Yes, you might really enjoy Criminal Minds, but the series will suck your mind in. You want to give your brain somewhere to go without taking it too far away. 

On the other side, there are lots of fencing videos online that you can watch, but this might not be the best moment for that. If you’re at a competition and you want to watch fencing, you’ll serve yourself better by looking up instead of at your screen. This is almost definitely not the time to watch fencing videos of yourself in previous competitions or bouts.  

Watch videos that either check you out totally or help you focus. 


Nothing can replace a good book, and this one pairs well with the music idea. You can pop in those headphones and get lost in a story or a magazine. 

There are a couple of ways to go about this. Reading a book about fencing, or even scrolling through articles online about fencing, might help you to keep your head in the game. You don’t want to distract yourself too much from your training, but at the same time, you are keeping your focus in one area. 

Inspirational reads are a great choice here, especially during the downtime of travel. Read interviews with athletes or inspiring figures about how they keep focused and keep going in the face of adversity. There are tons of books out there on focus and mental preparation, on mindset and on goal setting. These are all great options to read during downtime in fencing. 

During competition, you might not want a long book that you won’t be able to focus on properly. Consider bookmarking articles or interviews ahead of time to give you quick, easy reads during breaks in competition. 

Play solo games

Not everyone needs to disengage their brains – some people need the opposite. Keeping your brain busy with some kind of game by yourself might be the best way to spend some of that endless downtime during a fencing competition. 

You might play solitaire, sudoku, do crosswords, or try some Tetris. There are tons of brain training games for phones that are excellent and engaging. Find one or a few that help you to keep your brain from spiraling. A fidget toy might be helpful here, or a worry stone. If you like Rubix cubes, try bringing one along to a competition as a way to keep your brain engaged. 

Whatever you do that works for you, make sure it really works for you. Remember, your goal is to pass time without putting your mind into a wrong mental state. 

Steer clear of social media

This is the only “don’t” we’re including here. It’s not so much of an issue during travel downtime, but during the downtime at the actual competition, social media can be highly detrimental. It’s a real no-go in my book. 

The dopamine rush that social media provides is addictive – we know this from tons of research. It’s designed to pull your brain back into that space and keep you on the app. You’ll draw your attention span down smaller, and you’ll also find it more difficult to switch tasks when you come from ultra short-form content. 

Not only that, but you don’t have control over what you see in social media. If there’s a news event or something going on with your friends who aren’t fencing, that could be upsetting and draw your focus away from the task at hand. The emotional challenges that are naturally a part of social media are in direct opposition to what you need to be doing in fencing competition. 

If this is something you struggle with, try using a screen time app to lock your social media content during the actual competition. You can unlock it after and post all of your pictures, which is actually a great idea! Sharing fencing online is awesome, but getting distracted by online content during competition is not. 

Play group games

If you’re at a competition with parents, siblings, or other competitors, then this is a great chance to play some simple games that will while away the hours. 

A simple deck of cards that’s thrown into a fencing bag is a magical thing. Play a game of war, go fish, or blackjack as you wait for your next sets. These are engaging enough to keep your mind interested, but they won’t pull you far off. A physical deck of cards will also provide you with physical, kinetic stimulation in a way that online games won’t. This is really important when you’re trying to stay in the zone.

Silly games like I spy or the alphabet game (where you look for things that start with each letter of the alphabet) can keep your senses on point without distracting you too much. The bonus is that they build camaraderie with your teammates and with your family. 

This is a great time to socialize, and it’s important to acknowledge how valuable that socialization is. It’s not wasted time to chat away with your teammates or family members – it’s improves your mental state and makes you feel supported during stressful moments like a tournament. 

Practice Mindfulness and Visualization 

Meditation is commonly used by athletes to help them get focused for their competition. 

You don’t have to sit down, cross-legged, on a cushion in silence for thirty minutes. A quick, five-minute meditation that’s just you sitting with your eyes closed and your hands in your lap will do nicely. If you’ve got longer between bouts, then by all means go for longer. This can really get you in the right place to take on your next opponent. 

Guided meditations, which we’ve already mentioned, are a wonderful life hack for competitive situations. You can find them online, or you can use an app for them. Head Space is an app for your phone that has several guided meditations, even some that are geared towards competitions, training, recovery, concentration and motivation!  

We’ve written about grounding techniques in the past, and this is a wonderful opportunity to use them. Engaging your senses with your environment, on any level, will increase your performance. 

Cheer on Your Club-Mates!

If you’ve got a long time to wait between bouts, it might be worth checking out your friends from your club and how they’re doing. As long as it’s not going to deter you from getting to your own bout, it can help you boost your morale as well as theirs. 

When you cheer on your club-mates, you’re getting excited about fencing. It’s great for them, and that excitement that you generate will engage your own energy, too. 

It’s also an opportunity to observe other bouts. You might take away some tips or information that you can use later in your fight. Maybe you’ll just relax and enjoy the entertaining nature of the sport while you watch the bouts. As much as possible, allow the focus and excitement of the fencers you’re watching make you feel excited!

Think about your downtime

It’s just a fact of life that fencing tournaments can last very, very . . . very long sometimes. It’s part of the nature of them to have delays because of unexpected events. Earlier this season, there was a Junior Women’s Foil event that ended at 1am… 

For the most part, tournaments last 4-6 hours on average. You cannot warm up and fence for all of those hours! How you choose to spend that time must be a choice, from what you do during the travel to what you do during the competition itself. Make a plan for what you want to do, and look at what your needs actually are. Perhaps what you’re doing during tournaments right now isn’t the best way to facilitate a good experience for you.

Everything should be with the thought of getting into a mindset that is healthy for you and that promotes your focus and success. Downtime is a great opportunity to make the experience that much better!


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1 Comment

  1. R

    An aural distraction’s downside is that you need a means or someone to be alert for announcements/notifications, e.g. strip changes, DE round start, etc. I like five-minute meditations, of which I also do in the ref corral. See you in Minneapolis.

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