Art of Fencing, Art of Life

The Magic Ratio: How the Right Amount of Positivity can Transform Fencing Training

The Magic Ratio: How the Right Amount of Positivity can Transform Fencing Training

In anything that we do, we want to maximize the amount of value that we get out of it. That’s not about forcing anyone to fit into some sort of box that will make things work out right. It’s about helping people figure out what’s working and what doesn’t, and how to fix it. 

This also applies to fencers – we want to maximize the training that they get, not force them to become better by berating them or focusing exclusively on their faults in form, speed, physicality, etc. The way to long term success is paved with building a positive relationship with yourself so that you can clearly see what you need to work on and how to get there. 

The Magic Ratio is a method of giving positive feedback in a constructive way that supports athletes in improving their performance while also giving them the kind of constructive feedback that takes them to the next level. 

This is a layered concept that comes from relationship psychology and success psychology, but it applies so well to fencing. It’s great not only for fencers at the competitive level but also works for recreational fencers who want to improve. At the highest level of fencing, building up with healthy feedback that supports fencers in the right way is how fencers build longevity and the ability to grow over the long term.

Ted Lasso and the benefits of the Magic Ratio

If you’ve seen even a single episode of the sports dramedy Ted Lasso, or perhaps even a trailer for it, then you’ll understand the magic of positive feedback. 

The premise is that a very sunny and positive American football coach goes to England and turns around a professional British soccer team through his upbeat and unconventional approach. No one believes that all of his support and positivity will get the team on track, but it turns out that support really is the key to resilience and happiness for his players. 

“For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.” – Ted Lasso

Who can argue with that heartfelt and robust coaching philosophy?

Though Ted Lasso is fiction, his approach is grounded in the Magic Ratio. There are times when he has to get tough with the guys on the team, but by and large he offers emotional, mental, and physical positivity that buoys them over those tough moments. 

His players go from unsatisfied, argumentative, and phoning in their athleticism to feeling like they’re part of something and reaching their full potential. Ted gets there through consistent positive reinforcement that builds the team’s self-confidence so that they can go out into the world and take on their opponents with courage and strength. 

Just as in fencing, there are difficult decisions and mistakes, absolutely, but they are blunted by the overwhelmingly positive atmosphere that he creates for his players. This is the environment that we want to create in our fencing clubs, as well as the environment that fencing parents want to create with their young fencers.

Positive, negative, and neutral moments

We experience our entire lives not as one overall bucket of life, but instead as a series of drops that fall in succession – moments. 

Every single day is made up of many, many moments. In fact, there are roughly 20,000 moments in one 24-hour period, according to the work of Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning Israeli psychologist. He classified moments as a cohesive period of a few seconds that our brains process into experiences. 

Whatever you’re participating in, whether it’s cleaning, school work, fencing, family time, a car ride, or anything else, your brain is putting together a series of moments, that define your day. Every moment is categorized in our brain as being either positive, negative, or neutral.

Neutral moments don’t even register. They don’t stick in our brains for long. Positive and negative moments, they stay around for potentially a very long time. Our emotions are built through positive and negative moments, and those emotions affect how well we perform in fencing, both in training and in competition. 

In terms of fencing, it doesn’t matter whether the moments are actually during the bout, or whether they’re during downtime during class, or even before or after class when there’s an interaction with the coaches or classmates. A moment walking out to the car to head home after a night of training has an impact on a fencer. The moment when a fencer sees something on social media from a coach or from the club is a moment that has an impact. Even reading a fencing blog like this one, a sentence or two can create a moment that will stick with you.

The balance of moments

Researchers have investigated how the ratio of positive and negative coded moments impact us, and it’s interesting how these moments are weighted and directly connected to long-term choices and satisfaction in everything from sports to relationships to the workplace.

Getting the right balance of moments within some realm of life experience is important to grow and maintain satisfaction. It’s important for fencers to have the right balance between negative and positive moments so that they don’t get so frustrated that they walk away from fencing, but also so that things aren’t so easy that it’s not challenging them. 

John Gottman is a relationship researcher who worked out what he calls the Magic Ratio, which is the perfect balance of positive and negative moments. Gottman specifically researched marriage and divorce, but his magic ratio has been applied to sports, workplace environments, and especially in education. 

The Magic Ratio is 5:1. This means that five positive reactions are needed to balance one negative reaction. A single negative moment requires five positive moments to negate it. 

Over time, those negative moments start to add up. They get to be so heavy after a long time that they can cause someone to leave a situation. In the case of Gottman, he saw this in married couples. In classrooms, teachers see it in motivation and ability to succeed in the classroom. In sports, the magic ratio is applied to coaches and athletes. 

To keep our young fencers and our old fencers, engaged and progressing, they need that positive reinforcement at a much higher level than negative reinforcement. 

It’s not about praise

One misconception about putting all of this weight on the positive reinforcement side is that it makes training soft or that it just boils down to praise. That’s not at all what this format means. 

Positive moments doesn’t mean that the coach or parent is just heaping on unearned adoration for a fencer. Positive reinforcement can sound like 

  • “You did great work on with your feet in that last bout. That’s something you can do more of.”
  • “Thank you for helping your teammate get their fencing bag zipper unstuck.”
  • Giving a thumb’s up
  • Shaking hands
  • A nod of approval
  • Making a funny face
  • Clapping
  • Recognizing tournament results in the opening part of class
  • Liking/reacting on social media
  • Saying positive things about them in front of others

When it’s time to point out something negative, it’s preferable to put it in the context of a constructive point rather than cutting them down. Negative feedback should never be given towards the core of who a fencer is, rather it should focus on what they’re doing and how they can improve what they’re doing. 

  • “Your footwork is improving, so now you can build on that with better arm extension.”
  • “Watch out for the quickness of your opponent, you’ll have more success if you move faster.”
  • Specific corrections, couched alongside positive reinforcement.
  • Actionable changes
  • Emphasis on support
  • Stay away from blame

The fear of coddling young fencers is a valid one. We want them to be strong and resilient in competition and in training. Resilience is a direct line to success, and it’s also a way to keep their feet on the ground and their emotions grounded. 

Competition is tough enough on fencers, so there’s no need to put them down further by making their actions seem worse than they are. Giving fencers a supportive space is how young athletes thrive. It’s not about coddling, it’s about giving them a strong foundation so that they can build resilience when they are not in the comfort of the club. 

The Magic Ratio for yourself

For fencers who are training on their own at home, this process works well too. The difference of course is that you’re telling yourself these positive things as you go, building your confidence and pushing yourself forward. It’s important for fencers to do this for themselves, as well as to do this work with their coaches.

Transforming your own internal dialogue is an important part of reaching for success. Fencers who are able to analyze and improve what they’re saying to themselves develop resilience.

This is a great exercise to do during training bouting as these are low-pressure situations. It’s more difficult to layer in an exercise like the following when there are high stakes at a big competition. That’s why the offseason and the early part of the fencing season are the best times to do this kind of work.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Step 1 – Observe your thoughts during a bout. What are you saying to yourself about your performance? Is it weighted towards negative internal commentary or positive internal commentary?
  • Step 2 – Observe again, but this time, try to keep track of the ratio of negative to positive thoughts that you have about your fencing. How close are you to the magic ratio?
  • Step 3 – Sit down after the bout and physically write down the negative and positive things that you said about yourself. Were they fair? Did you mentally gloss over positive things? How could you reframe the negative commentary into something positive?
  • Step 4 – During the next bout, every time you have a negative thought about your performance, find something positive to make note of instead. This is a powerful way to get you on track. 
  • Step 5 – After the bout, sit down and evaluate your mental commentary as you did in step 3. 
  • Repeat steps 4 and 5 until you get to the magic ratio of 5 positive moments to 1 negative moment. It’s not easy, and it will take time. 

The key to this, like the key to anything, is putting the time and effort into shaping your thoughts. If you are very harsh on yourself, then it will take even longer. However, you’ll find out that when you put your whole heart and mind into changing your way of thinking, your fencing will improve. Your joy in fencing will also improve. 

The Magic Ratio with a friend or teammate

Another great way to do this is to enlist the help of a friend or teammate. Ask them to work with you on exploring the Magic Ratio, and through this work you can both help yourself become better and have a healthier mindset. 

This is one of the best ways to get a feel for the Magic Ratio and what it’s like in practice. Here’s how you do it. 

  • Step 1 – Have your friend sit close by and watch you do some drill that you’ve been working on. Do the drill several times to give them plenty of time to see what you’re doing and what you could be doing better, as well as what your strengths are. 
  • Step 2 – Stand there in front of your friend, perhaps a bit nervously, and ask them to evaluate your drill. Here’s the trick – they must say five positive things and only one constructive piece of negative information. 
  • Step 3 – Switch places. Your friend runs a drill and now you have to tell them five positive things and only one negative thing. 

This works well not only with drills, but also with bouting. Run a practice bout with your friend, then take turns giving easy other feedback in line with the Magic Ratio. 

Negative and positive conditioning

We are so conditioned to look for the negative that it can quickly and harshly run down our spirits and steal the joy from what we’re doing. It’s incredibly important that we work to build those positive moments not only with our teammates and coaches, but also with ourselves.  

Of the power of positive coaching, sports psychologist Mary Fry of the University of Kansas said, “Many coaches don’t realize how much good they could do if they supported athletes, built them up, and believed in their incredible potential.” That’s exactly what we want to bring to our fencers.  

Incorporating positive reinforcement on the coach level, the parent level, and the personal level as a fencer with the Magic Ratio is a perfect way to make a fencer’s relationship to themselves and the sport healthier and more resilient. After all, it’s not just about doing well on the strip, as Ted Lasso would say, it’s also about becoming the best version of yourself.


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  1. R

    Extensive, thoughtful post. Last weekend’s kids’ regional revealed too much crying. A Y10ME at 4-4 stepped over the end line before scoring a touch. He cried inconsolably that I stole his touch. His coach reinforced this by saying the touch was scored before the penalty. At your super regional, a Y14WF cried every time she was touched. Positivity without grit obviates resilience.

  2. S. A.

    Thanks so much for this post! I truly believe in the power that the coaches have on building an athlete! Thanks for putting upfront and center the psychology of this sport, which is huge specially in fencing!

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