I recently had a discussion with a concerned parent who made the decision not to sign up her daughter for a fencing competition. Her reasoning was that in her last tournament, her daughter had only won three bouts in the pools and lost her first Direct Elimination (DE) bout. To her, it seemed evident that her daughter’s level of experience was insufficient, and she planned to wait until her daughter’s win rate improved.

I explained to her that this situation is akin to a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma. To become a proficient fencer, you need to participate in competitions, as your statistics are an integral part of the competition experience. Making judgments based on a single competition is unreliable and shortsighted.

Take, for instance, a recent occurrence at the Vancouver Epee World Cup, where some of the world’s top fencers, such as Olympic and World Champions and medalists, lost their first bout and were subsequently eliminated. If we only consider this single snapshot, their performance appears subpar. However, when we analyze their performance over the past five or six seasons and across numerous competitions, we see that they consistently rank among the world’s top fencers. This one competition means nothing in isolation and serves as a testament to the necessity of a broader perspective when evaluating a fencer’s skill and experience.

The Driving Analogy

To illustrate this concept, I often draw a comparison between competing in fencing and learning to drive. No matter how many times you read the rulebook or play video simulation games, becoming a skilled driver takes a considerable amount of practice.

Imagine learning to drive: you encounter hundreds, if not thousands, of diverse situations on the road. You navigate local roads, different highways, deal with aggressive drivers, decipher confusing GPS instructions, decipher graffiti-covered road signs, cope with blinding sun, adapt to sudden road construction, tackle driving in rain with faulty wipers, and traverse fog as thick as milk. Just when you begin feeling confident as a driver, you encounter challenging conditions, like winding, icy mountain roads with inadequate tires, and your confidence vanishes instantly.

This analogy resonates with many parents because it highlights the importance of experience. Just as you must accumulate extensive driving experience to become a confident driver, fencers must gain significant competition experience to excel in their sport.

Why Competing Frequently Matters

Competing frequently is essential because competition performance is a multifaceted skill, encompassing mental, technical, and physical aspects. Like any skill, it requires training and practice.

To draw a parallel with driving, you must participate in numerous competitions to become comfortable with them. This process involves:

  • Understanding how you perform under pressure.
  • Establishing a personal warm-up routine.
  • Facing different opponents with various styles and strategies.
  • Learning to ignore opposing crowds and draw motivation from your own supporters.
  • Adapting to real-time coaching advice.
  • Managing nerves when trailing and maintaining composure when leading.
  • Excelling under the pressure of priority minutes.
  • Developing the ability to stage comebacks from a significant point deficit.
  • Scoring in the final seconds of a bout.
  • Bouncing back after a tough loss.
  • Focusing on the next bout, irrespective of external distractions.
  • Navigating long competition days that begin early.
  • Adjusting to different time zones when traveling for competitions.

These are just a few examples of the skills competition experience imparts. The list is far from exhaustive, but it highlights why frequent participation in competitions is crucial for a fencer’s growth.

The chicken-and-egg situation of competition experience is resolved by the simple truth: you need to compete to learn how to compete. The most important mental preparation for competition is adjusting your expectations. Focus on learning rather than winning, on the process rather than the outcome.

This mindset shift is essential, and it aligns with the concept of a growth mindset. In fencing, as in life, experience is the best teacher. Encourage your young fencer to embrace competitions as opportunities for growth and learning. Just as a seasoned driver navigates diverse road conditions with confidence, a fencer with ample competition experience faces bouts with poise and determination.