Seems simple enough right?
Breathing is really simple. It comes naturally to our bodies as a way to nurture and sustain us, providing life sustaining oxygen to our brains and our muscles. The simple act of drawing air in and then expelling it is universal, extending to land animals and even to plants. It is fundamental.
However for the fencer breathing can be so much more than just a life sustaining action. Good breath control is a way to take your fencing to the next level. How? Because just as we refine the way that we stand and the way that we walk as fencers, so too do we refine the way that we breath in order to give us that next level of control.
But as breathing is important for any sport, little is being said about proper breathing for fencing.
Don’t Hold Your Breath
Perhaps the biggest mistake that inexperienced (and sometimes seasoned) fencers make is to hold their breath. This is particularly true during the attack portion of the fencing cycle. Some novice fencers even close their eyes! A response like this happens often because it’s natural. You’re putting yourself out there in an incredibly physical way and so your body responds by tensing and shielding itself.
Holding your breath during the attack robs you of the ability to be loose and in control. Rigid muscles can’t respond to new challenges and changes, which in fencing happen every moment. Holding your breath robs your body of much needed oxygen, which rather than giving you control actually increases that sense of panic! This is of course the last thing that you want to do when you’re already in an intense situation. You need to calm your nerves so that your mind can wake up, and that means getting some much needed oxygen to your brain.
How to Use Your Breath as a Fencer
When you’re practicing, work on even breathing. This is something that you want to become a real habit, with the goal eventually being to not think about breathing at all. You’ll want your breathing to feel natural, but also deep. The more oxygen that you bring in by filling your lungs to as high a capacity as possible will mean more fuel for muscles and for brain.
Place your hand on your belly (right now, don’t be shy!) and take a deep breath. Your belly should move out, which allows your diaphragm to move down and your lungs to pull in more air. Effective breathing is essential, and for many people it’s a learned skill. You want to be taking deep breaths during your bouts! If you have ever watched almost any martial arts movie or yoga training, you can see how much attention a proper breathing gets. For some reason you don’t see that much talk about proper breathing in fencing. However that does not mean that it is not equally important in fencing as in any other sport.
You’ll notice that the more you practice deep breathing, the easier and more intuitive it becomes. You can practice it anywhere you are – sitting on the couch or standing in line at the lunch counter. Taking just a few moments to focus on your breathing as you go through your day will help you to learn how you can control it.
Effective Breath Boosts Attack
This is something that has long been known to great fencers. Breathing out as you move toward your opponent will help you to improve your speed and precision.
You probably heard your coach saying to you again and again, slow start, fast finish. When you start your action you start it slowly, conceiving your true intention, speed and the moment, but the final attacking explosion should be very fast. During the slow part, try taking a deep breath and then exhaling strongly as you perform your final action. This takes some getting used to, but is worth it. In fact any of these changes that you make with you breath are going to take some getting used to! The key is to start off by being aware of your breath and using it intentionally in order to enhance your fencing.
Some fencers suggest that if you are truly struggling to exhale while you attack, then try to say a word during the last action. It doesn’t have to be loud, but it will help you to focus that exhalation when you lunge or fleche forward. You certainly don’t need to yell, but saying a word while moving forward will force you to exhale, and you’ll get all of the benefits that go along with it.
Whatever you do, we must say again how important it is that you don’t hold your breath! That goes for the inhale and for the exhale. After the attack and that big exhale, you need to start breathing deeply and steadily again. That kind of steady and fulfilling breathing will allow you to sustain longer bouts without wearing down.
Use Breath To Calm Nerves
Another incredibly important way that breath can be used in fencing is to calm the nerves. Being relaxed allows your mind to focus without running away with you. Many fencers really struggle with getting overly nervous before a match, especially novice fencers or young fencers.
Deep breathing that’s done well can have an almost magical effect on the anxiety, and can be utilized any time during training or competition. It’s a fantastic way to get yourself calm and in control that doesn’t require any kind of equipment or intervention.
The simplest way to use breath to calm yourself is to breathe out for longer than you breathe in. It’s really that simple! Try breathing deeply, with your belly expanding, for three counts. Now, immediately breathe out for a count of five, emptying your lungs completely, pulling your abs in toward your back. Repeat this for four to six cycles and you’ll experience the powerful effects. It works because by breathing out for longer than you breathe in, you’re turning up your parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation, digestion, sleep) and turning down your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight).
Breath is truly your best friend when you’re feeling crazy about your training or in a performance! It’s especially important when you’re down in points during a match, as you quickly lose focus when your body and mind start to panic. Getting rid of those responses will be truly helpful for you!
The Fencing Mask and the Breath
One of our most basic pieces of fencing equipment also poses some challenges when we’re trying to maintain good breathing.
It’s important to take “mask breaks” during training and competition in order to maintain your oxygen intake. You can do this during bouts by stepping back to the starting line after the touch. This will allow you just a moment to pull your mask up and take a few deep breaths. Remember to keep those breaths deep and full, going all the way down to your belly.
Remember that as fencers we’re uniquely challenged for breath because we’re covering our faces during the most strenuous parts of our sport! This means that you need to take special care to compensate so that you can get all of the oxygen that you need to stay focused, healthy and fencing! Make mask breaks a habit, one that you practice regularly during training.
After a while, breathing effectively while you’re fencing will come just as naturally as breathing is for you at any other time. The key here is to practice, practice so that it becomes second nature! With good breathing your fencing will be more focused and more effective.