We hear a lot of people in athletics talking about psyching themselves into competition. There’s that competition mindset, the one that is supposed to propel us to the big wins. What if it’s not all about pushing the mind and body hard? Balance is the key to everything, and in fencing that includes balancing the tension and excitement of competition with looseness, relaxation and clarity.
Fencing is a tough and intensive sport. It’s tough on the body, but it can also be tough on the mind. This time of year, we see a lot of fencers feeling a little out of sorts and stressed out. With family obligations, school obligations, and fencing competitions that are heating up, there’s a lot that can make us feel tense.
In order to perform at the highest level, fencers have to learn to relax. To help you do that, we’ve put together some powerful and doable relaxation techniques for fencers. Many of these you’re going to be familiar with, but the goal here is to put them in context for your fencing.
When anxiety and stress take over, the first thing to change is the breath. The body tenses up and breathing gets shallow.
You have more control over your breath than you do over almost anything else in your body. You can change your heart rate, change the stress chemicals in your brain, change your muscle tension, and more all through your breath. All of that oxygen is critical to controlling your muscles when you fence. The negative emotions that come with fencing, like frustration and feeling overwhelmed, well those will subside when you give yourself the chance to breathe. It’s a gift!
When you breathe, place your hand on your stomach and push it forward. This is going to allow your lungs to fill fully, which isn’t going to happen otherwise. Break your breath into four parts.
- Take a breath in while you count to four, slowly and expanding your abdomen.
- Hold it for a slow four count at the top, enjoying the full feeling in your lungs.
- Release the breath, pulling your stomach in, for a count of four until your lungs are totally empty.
- Be still for another count of four, with your lungs empty.
- Repeat this whole process four times.
This is an incredibly simple breath pattern that you can do during your warm-up, between bouts, or even during travel. What you’ll get most of this is a sense of control and clarity, which is naturally going to relax you. You can also do one or two rounds of the four by four breath as you stand on the edge of the strip, ready to fence.
It’s an unnervingly common belief that tense muscles are controlled muscles. In order to be the most effective, fencers need to be loose and in control. If your muscles are so tense, well then you can’t actually move them, right? They’re too tight and stiff to move effectively.
There are a few ways to go after tense muscles.
Passive muscle release
With this, you imagine that the tension is flowing out of your muscles like water draining from a bathtub. This works with deep breathing. So you take a full, deep breath while you open your muscles, then release them while your breath releases. You can do this in conjunction with the four by four breath.
Active muscle release
You’ve probably tried this before, and it works. Inhaling, you tense those muscles up, one section at a time. Then you exhale while you release. This is great for really tense muscles that passive muscle release doesn’t work with. Be sure to hold the tension for a count of four or five. This process works because you’re forcing your muscles to naturally react to the increased tightening by loosening. They feel much more relaxed in comparison.
Here’s the progression for a whole body active muscle release. Do each of these groups individually for the best effect, then do the whole body at once. Tense and release each section three times.
- Chest and back
- Backside and pelvis
- Whole body
This is a good exercise to do between pool rounds to give yourself a little reset. You can even do it while you’re traveling if you find yourself tensing up on a plane or in the car as a passenger. Fencers who struggle to sleep on the road can do this to help them relax for sleep.
If you’ve got one particular problem area, well you can just do that. Fencers tend to have a lot of tension in the hands, and this relaxation technique is perfect for that. It’s also wonderful to isolate the shoulders. Anywhere that you need to get some relief!
Not everything has to be in your head. Lots of athletes use a foam roller to help them combat tension in their muscles, rolling it back and forth across the highly tense areas. One note on this is that you want to be careful, as putting too much pressure can actually cause damage if you aren’t paying attention. It’s also important to avoid joints with the foam roller, as they are more prone to injury.
Focus on the process.
A big enemy of relaxation is too much focus on the outcome. Whether you win this match, whether you get to the top of the podium, whether this match helps you to qualify for this competition down the line, what matters most is that you grow through the competition. The process is what matters! Worrying about the outcome of any fencing match is only going to make it more difficult for you to get that good outcome that you want.
You cannot worry about winning if you’re going to win consistently. You can’t let the expectations of other people overwhelm you either. Allow yourself to be in the moment and to enjoy fencing for what it is. That’s easier said than done for a lot of us, but it’s always a worthwhile pursuit! This is a habit that you can definitely change, and it’ll have a big impact when you do.
To make this happen, change the habit. Whenever you find yourself focusing on the outcome, move your attention to something concrete that you can do. For instance, during a match if you start to worry about scoring a point, move your attention to your footwork or your handwork. Move your focus to your breathing at least if you can’t think of anything else. Pay attention to things that your coach has told you to work on, rather than focusing on the outcome. It’s amazing how much this frees the mind and releases undue tension!
You cannot always control the outcome of a fencing match. You can, however, control your actions.
One of the most effective ways that fencers I know relax is by listening to music. Popping in headphones just about anywhere has the effect of pulling you out of this moment, which might be stressful, and into another place. It’s a very personalized method of relaxation, because you might think that one kind of music is the best while someone else thinks that another kind is. The point is that you want to change where you are by putting in those headphones and zoning out into another place. It’s a temporary escape, a reset for your brain.
Create a playlist on Spotify or a station on Pandora, use Apple Music or whatever works for you. There are tons of free guided meditations to help you relax or help you focus. These are surprisingly effective! What’s more, they’re very simple to do and easy. Just plug and play.
As a competitive fencer, you want to develop your own little cache of relaxation techniques that you can use any time. It’s important that you customize, working through lots of options to find what works for you. Don’t be afraid to try different relaxation techniques, testing things that you’re not entirely sure will work but that you can feel around to see. There are so many possibilities!
Relaxation is just as important as training. It’s all about balance, as we can’t go super hard all the time!