Age is truly a relative thing. When you are a little kid, you can’t wait to be a teenager. When you’re a teenager, you can’t wait to be an adult. When you’re an adult, you wonder why your childhood and teenage self were in such a hurry to rush through to adulthood.
When you think about it in the bigger picture like this, it’s easy to see that it’s a no-win situation. At every age, you could see something wrong with the stage that you’re at. This is really true in sport, because the limitations and strengths of our physical bodies change so clearly with time.
Fencing is different than many sports because it is possible to enjoy the sport fully even as we age. There’s a reason that the Veteran category of fencing has age ranges all the way up to the eighties! Even with that reality, it’s not uncommon to hear fencers comment on how they are limited by their age in this way or that way. It even happens to younger fencers, who must grapple with bodies that grow four inches in a year and force them to change the way they approach the sport.
Learning to recalibrate how you think about aging in fencing will make it easier to reach those fencing goals, and what’s more, it will make you a happier fencer.
Change is not failure
Our youth-obsessed culture pushes the notion that we are less worthwhile as we pass certain age milestones. We even go so far as to call the twenties and thirties the “prime of life”. In Olympic sports, there is constant talk about when athletes are at their “peak age” or at what age they will “age out” of the sport.
All of this talk about age is, at best, infuriating. At worst, it’s patently detrimental to the self-esteem and success of all of us.
There is no perfect age to be at. Yes, in the USA, fencers tend to be most competitive in their twenties, but there are a multitude of reasons why that is. Our society is structured around that age, in part because this is in a spot where these fencers don’t have as many family and career responsibilities as they will later. There is a physicality factor, certainly, but we’ve seen competitive fencers blow us all away even as they cross into their thirties and beyond.
Recent examples that come to mind are Geza Imre and Igor Tikhomirov. Imre, a Hungarian world-renowned epee fencer, won the Olympic Silver medal in Rio at the age of 42. Tikhomirov is a Canadian (former Soviet) epee fencer, who, at age of 45, won the Panamerican Championships and an individual Bronze medal at the World Championships in 2006.
The changes that we see people going through with age are not indicative of a failure on their part. First of all, something that is a natural progression of human existence cannot be a failure. Aging happens to everyone, and it seems pretty obvious that we shouldn’t devalue the people we will eventually become one day. Think about the way that we celebrate milestones of growth and accomplishment in children. They master a new skill and we are all there to cheer them on. It’s not just those younger milestones that deserve that kind of recognition. Mastering a new skill at age twenty-five or thirty-five is just as important as mastering it at age ten.
The natural changes that we go through in life are never failures. Reframing these changes as milestones can really help us to see them in a positive light.
Exhuberance vs. experience
With experience, we should start to learn that we cannot do things the same way that we did before. Where we might have been able to maintain our fencing performance with just class and open fencing before, as our bodies slow down a bit, we might now need to add in some cardio or strength training to build a stronger foundation.
The youthful exuberance must at some point give way to the wisdom of experience. Both are valuable! Both are powerful and important parts of our life’s journey and our fencing journey.
It is dangerous to fall into the trap of thinking that the way we started doing things is the only way to do things. If there is an injury or an age-related limitation, we have to take that into account and then make adjustments.
This doesn’t only apply to veteran fencers. When a fencer moves from high school to college, the must recalibrate how they think about their training and how they structure their fencing time. Though they likely maintain some of that high school excitement, the stakes around their training will be very different as they move out of mom and dad’s house. They’ll be responsible for so much more of their day to day life, and that will change the way that they approach their fencing.
As veteran fencers get older, it can be really tough to have to slow down a bit. Instead of thinking about it as slowing down, think about it as recalibrating. While the speed that you had at twenty might not be the same at forty or fifty, there are tradeoffs that you gain from experience. A fencer who’s in their forties will know how to read a situation and avoid touches without the need for such lightning speed.
Too often, we focus on the things that are lost over time, rather than reveling in the gains that we get with experience!
A well-lived life
I recently read a piece by Seth Godin, who said of the changes that we experience in life, “None of these changes are failures. They’re simply steps in the journey. We change. That’s part of the deal. A well-lived life without calibration is unlikely.”
The part that struck me was that last sentence – “A well-lived life without calibration is unlikely.”
When an injury occurs, or when we are faced with a problem that is pushing back on us due to the physical limitations or changes that happen with age, we have to rethink what we’re doing. Just as a fencer has to choose to respond effectively to an opponent who presents an unexpected action, so to do we need to respond effectively when life challenges us with a different way of doing things.
The impetus of our society implies that we should throw the whole person out when they are deemed too old or too injured to do things exactly as they did before. That notion leads us in the opposite direction of what Godin was pointing to as the goal – a well-lived life.
If you want to have a well-lived fencing life, you must learn to flow with the changes. You must learn to respond appropriately to the opponent that you are facing, which in the end is really your own self-doubt and your own entrenched ideas. You must recalibrate.