Opportunity and risk vs danger in fencingMaybe it’s the fact that we’re holding weapons, but many people believe that there is a fair amount of danger in the sport of fencing. It’s one of the things that makes the sport romantic, even though it is one of the safest sports that a child or an adult can participate in.

Risk and danger are two ideas that are easily and often conflated. They are by no means the same thing. There are many good and noble reasons that risk is a part of what we do as fencers. Danger on the other hand is not something that we want to be a part of the equation.

Learning to take positive risks in life is a powerful way that we can learn to move forward and to grow as fencers as well as to grow as people. Partaking in dangerous activities isn’t the same thing, as doesn’t offer the same rewards as risk taking. Understanding the difference between the two can help fencers to grow.

Danger in fencing

There is a certain amount of danger in any sport. Sports are physical activities, and with all physical activity there is the possibility that something might occur that will cause harm to the body. Injuries happen.

But what exactly is danger? And how do we see it in fencing?

Danger implies that there is a major probability that a negative outcome is going to occur. When we think of danger, we often think of people doing reckless things that are likely to get them injured. In order for something to be dangerous, it’s got to invoke something serious.

We don’t think of soccer as dangerous, even though soccer ranks above Taekwondo in average number of injuries during the Olympic games. Soccer players run that ball hard and hit it not only with their feet, but with their heads as well. The sheer number of players on the field makes soccer more dangerous as there are more variables than with a one-on-one sport like fencing.

It’s difficult not to think of fencing as dangerous when it came out of a tradition of actual fighting that was originally done with the intent to harm another. Though swordsmanship has always been associated with wartime, it was never just about harming another human. Fighting is in so many ways about bettering the individual, about taking their life to the next level. As much as there is danger in wielding a sword, there is also self-mastery to be had (more on that in the next section).

Though revolves around hitting the opponent with a sword, these swords are of course not sharp, and they are even pliable. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t sting to get hit with one, or that it wouldn’t be possible to actually harm someone with a fencing sword in very rare occasion. The thrusts and parries that are part of fencing are only there to facilitate the scoring of points, so contact with an opponent’s sword is most often minor and not dangerous.

The most common injuries in fencing don’t even have to do with the sword, they’re run of the mill sports injuries such as strained muscles or turned ankles. Overuse of the body during training is the biggest danger for a fencer, not a serious injury from any weapon.

Despite the status of fencing as a combat sport, it turns out that there’s very little danger after all. The idea of dueling might stir within us deep down feelings that romanticize the sport, but in reality there’s just not much danger in fencing.

Danger is not something that we want to entertain as fencers. Though there may be an element of excitement that goes along with the sport, it’s not derived from being in peril. The rush of adrenaline that happens upon us during a bout comes from our desire to perform at our best and the anticipation of the outcome, and it’s distinctly different from the rush of adrenaline that a skydiver gets when they bound out of an airplane.

Risk pushes growth in sport

What really takes danger out of sport is practice. The movements that a fencer does on the strip are practiced over, and over, and over again. It’s the rigor of that practice that solidifies the ability of a fencer to enter into a combat sport with such a low risk of injury. The more that a fencer practices, the less likely he or a she is to make a mistake or to get injured during a bout.

Risk is all about doing all of the pieces that are necessary to prepare and then taking chances once the moment is upon you. The idea of risk is one that centers directly around going outside of that comfort zone to try new things. Innovation in sport and in life is derived from pushing the envelope. The more that we’re able to step outside of that comfort zone, the more we’re able to create new opportunities through the art of sport, the more we can find the success that we’re looking for.

A major difference in risk and danger is that risk has the potential to end up in a positive outcome. When someone tries something that they’ve never done before, it’s a risky move. However there is the potential for an individual who takes that risk to get something in return that’s better than what they started with. In danger, there’s no chance of a positive payoff, and the most that one can hope for is to avoid a negative outcome.

Danger is reckless by its very nature. Risk, on the other hand, can be very carefully calculated. That’s what we want to see when we encourage risk in fencing – we want to see our fencers take careful stock of the situation and then jump in with risk that’s measured and well thought out.

Replacing risk with courage

The other side of risk is courage. Think about it -these are two are on either side of a single coin. Using the term risk highlights the negative end of the spectrum, but it’s by no means the only way to understand the concept. By calling it risk, we’re placing emphasis on the potential for a negative outcome.

Changing the phrase to emphasize the positive potential by using the word “courage” shifts our understanding and helps fencers to embrace the unknown.

Fencing is a game of chess, one in which we must learn when it’s time to risk the queen in order to take down our opponent’s king. Sometimes it’s the risky move in fencing that provides the ultimate payoff; leaping in for that point that seems impossible but is the only way to save the match. Taking a big risk instead of playing it safe is in and of itself an act of courage when it’s done in service to a higher cause.

It’s still important to delineate the difference between taking risks that are unnecessary and being courageous about training. We can over train in fencing, and that’s by no means a courageous act. Understanding how to push ourselves to the limit and beyond our comfort while still staying on this side of actual danger is a big reason that we rely on coaches and mentors. Learning how to do more with our bodies without actually harming ourselves is part of the path to greatness in sports.

The other piece that we need to be clear about in terms of risk and courage is the emotional side of the whole thing. Risk isn’t just about physical harm, there’s a good deal of emotional risk that goes along with stepping onto a fencing strip. It takes guts to stand in front of an opponent, and that psychological courage is the most character building aspect of fencing.

Learning to be bold in the face of challenges is a skill that’s transferrable. Fencers who can stand up to opponents who cause them distress are better able to then step up in the face of many obstacles, be they in an academic setting or out in the workforce. Understanding risk and then learning how to prepare for it will allow fencers to take advantage of opportunities that might come along in the future, whether they are related to fencing or not.

At the end of the day we come back to the notion again and again of taking on challenges that stand in our way with open eyes as to what about them constitutes a risk that requires courage versus what kinds of things might constitute genuine danger.

Fencing takes a great deal of courage in order to face the risks that are presented by it, even if the danger is mostly in our imagination.